Coca-Cola Hunts for Social-Net Formula

NEW YORK Back in June 2006, a now-famous Coca-Cola video began making the rounds. In it, two men made a geyser out of bottles of Diet Coke and Mentos candies. Coke representatives were not pleased.

Later, another Coke-themed video appeared, this time from France, showing young men throwing cans of the soda into the garbage from impossible angles. It was a neat trick, entertaining enough to draw millions of views on YouTube. But this time around, rather than wringing their hands over their brand literally being thrown into the trash, Coke rushed to embrace the consumer-generated content. It even collaborated with the Lyon-based youth to make another video.

“The biggest takeaway [from the Diet Coke-Mentos video] was consumers own our brands,” said Carol Kruse, vp of global interactive marketing at Coke. “We had absolutely nothing to do with it, but we were the beneficiaries. [We] needed to embrace that.”

The schizophrenic responses show the uncertain embrace Coke’s made of social media as it tries to translate its over 50 years of success in the traditional marketing world to the new terrain. The pitfalls the company has faced and concessions it’s made highlight the challenges faced by big brands navigating the new marketing playbook.

The Diet Coke-Mentos experience was only one of several missteps Coke made in its forays into the world of social media. Months earlier, its Coke Zero blog was discovered to be a fake (generated not by consumers, but in-house), while the remake of Coke.com into a YouTube-like site for consumer-generated content (dubbed The Coke Show), launched in July 2006, initially provoked brickbats from outsiders and failed to generate much in the way of submissions or traffic. Even Sprite Sips, Coke’s first application on Facebook (the brand was a “landmark partner” on the social net’s Social Ads platform) fell flat. Currently, it has just 12 daily active users — and they’re not afraid to voice their opinions. On the comment board, one user described Sips as “crap to the power of suck.”

“Coke is throwing a lot of money at trying different things out versus deeply understanding how their customers want to express their experience with the Coke brand,” said Denise Shiffman, principal of marketing consultancy Venture Essentials and author of The Age of Engage. “They’re used to having these high-production value, high-quality marketing activities. In this marketplace, it doesn’t have to be this way.”

Coke may not have found its winning online formula, but that hasn’t stopped it from trying. Other efforts have included promotions on YouTube to send video holiday cards, a promotional stint on Second Life and an ongoing virtual world called CC Metro. It also has rolled out three more Facebook applications, including a nightlife-themed app, Burn Alter Ego, to promote its energy drink sold in the U.K.

According to Kruse, while some of the company’s efforts might not have had the results they’d hoped for, the company has benefited from its experimentation, using what it’s learned to adjust future projects. The Burn Alter Ego, for instance, takes its cues from the popularity of social gaming apps on Facebook, such as Scrabulous. The avatar goes clubbing at night and then blogs about it the morning, and playing with it more unlocks additional options. Unlike the Sips application, which was mostly static, the Burn Alter Ego is meant to be dynamic, Kruse said. Additionally, she noted, the branding is done with a light touch.

“We’re learning in the social media space what level of branding is appropriate,” she explained.

Other challenges are knowing just how much participation a soda brand should expect from consumers, and figuring out what triggers the interest in the first place. Take the contests offered on the relaunched Coke.com’s Coke Show. One, for instance, asked consumers to express themselves as a brand, and the entries were all over the place, said Lars Bastholm, ecd at AKQA in New York, Coke’s digital agency. Yet a narrower contest, which asked people to create a new sport, led to much higher-quality entries. “User-generated content can work [when] it’s really, really targeted,” Bastholm said.

One of Coke’s latest ventures is its CocaCola Conversations blog (coca-colaconversations.com), launched last January after two years of blog monitoring to see what was being said about the brands. (On a typical day, per Adam Brown, director of digital communications at Coke, the company’s products would be mentioned 2,000-2,500 times.) Intended to be the hub for consumer interactions with the company and its products, the blog has started out with a focus on Coke memorabilia and brand history — topics identified after execs saw enormous interest for company items online; eBay alone has about 30,000 Coke items for sale.

Company director of archives Phil Mooney, a 30-year Coke vet who often leads discussions on other blogs, lends the company blog an authentic voice, Brown said. Other employees will be added to the site as well.

“We want to make sure it’s interesting and sustainable,” noted Brown. “It’s a long-term commitment.”

“One of the principles crucial to this space is adding value to the conversation,” said John Battelle, CEO of Federated Media, a social-marketing advertising company. “It means oftentimes underwriting content or creating a service people actually want. That shifts a brand from being a declarer of values and lifestyle to being a provider of one. That’s very different.”