Coca-Cola’s ‘new’ brand purpose – how to be right and wrong at the same time

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3-minute read

You will have seen in the marketing press that Coca-Cola recently unveiled its new brand purpose, ‘Unite and uplift’, alongside its new ad, ‘Could I be wrong?’. At the same time Walter Susini, Coke’s senior vice-president of marketing EMEA, observed that ‘Unite and uplift’ is not really new at all: “We’ve had this brand purpose for 134 years. We’ve just been refreshing it depending on what was relevant in society at that moment in time.”

Well.  Kinda.

Around the turn of the Millennium, Coca-Cola was Movement’s biggest client.  The time came when I had worked on Coke for longer than anyone who was actually employed in Coke’s marketing team!  I was very clear back then that Coke’s values distilled to the essence of ‘Unifying’.  Its unique quality was its ability to help people make a connection with each other, through the fact that the brand was recognised as embodying values that everyone wished to embrace.  The iconic status of the brand was key to its ability to do this, the very sight of it evoking these values for people the world over, by virtue of being so widely recognised and understood.

However, for much of the 21st Century, Coca-Cola has studiously ignored this, taking the brand on an aimless trek through a forest of strategic and creative distractions.  The failure to support the brand’s core equity in a consistent way over this time means that Coke’s positive values are less widely recognised and understood now than they were then. However, at least the brand appears to have returned to this fundamental truth.  Better late than never, I guess.

That said, I think Coke has tripped itself up in a couple of respects here.

First, its purpose is not single-minded.

‘Unite and uplift’.  Sorry, which is it?  Is Coke’s purpose to unite, or is it to uplift?  Surely, if it unites people, it will give them emotional uplift, so ‘uplift’ is superfluous.  You may see this as pedantry, but there’s a good reason why I’m a little obsessive about single-mindedness, in statements of brand purpose as much as in brand propositions.  The intellectual discipline involved in working out the single thing you stand for is important, because it enables everyone who has to bring it to life to be 100% clear on the focus.  Any ambiguity creates a weak spot that can disrupt or even destroy the coherence required for effective brand behaviour.  In this case, being single-minded would, for example, remove the opportunity for someone to come along and say, “Yeah, but what about the uplift bit?  Why don’t we see someone enjoying the drink.”  Trust me, it’ll happen.  I’ve been there.

The second stumble concerns execution.

As Susini observes, “The world is more divided than ever”, so the time is right for “the brand that wants to bring people together”.  The new ad, ‘Could I be wrong?’, by Wieden & Kennedy London, is a good piece of work.  It’s very watchable and employs a strong visual metaphor, with the world literally crumbling around people as they argue with each other about everything. The stumble comes 1 minute in, when Natasha Lyonne intervenes with her advice that “If you asked yourself, ‘Could I be the one that’s wrong?’, maybe things could change for the better”.

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Really?  It was going so well.  Why does Ms Coke (ooh, look, she’s a red-head) have to arrive on the scene and preach to us?  It’s a clumsy and didactic intervention by the brand, when it could and should have conveyed its point in a far more subtle and allusive way.  When she then goes on to say, “Hey what do I know?”, it’s almost as if the brand knows it’s overstepped the mark.

That said, I do like the fist-bump/dynamic ribbon transition at the end: a clever way of integrating the core proposition into the brand identity.

So, it’s 7 out of 10 to Coke for rediscovering its strategic core – but failing to nail it single-mindedly. And it’s 7 out of 10 again for producing advertising that refreshingly (see what I did there?) has a creative idea rather than shows us hip ‘real’ people living ‘authentic’ lives – but then dropping the ball with clumsy brand integration.

However, I could be wrong…

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