Media Plan of the Year: Best Use of Internet – Universal McCann

The team at Universal McCann Interactive set out to paint the navigation screens of Internet-access giants AOL, MSN and Yahoo! in distinctive “Coca-Cola red” as part of the multimedia re-launch of the soda behemoth’s leading brand, Coca-Cola Classic. “We wanted to build such desire that consumers needed to just reach through their computer screens and grab that refreshing can of Coke,” explains the agency’s svp/interactive media director David Cohen, who headed the group responsible for this year’s Plan of the Year/Best Use of Internet.

But when the agency, AOR for Atlanta-based Coca-Cola Co., pitched the idea, it was executives for the ISPs, rather than consumers, who saw red. “Initial reactions from the largest players was, ‘You can’t do that. We can’t change our…background colors for an advertiser—consumers won’t stand for it. The backlash will be incredible,'” Cohen recalls.

Eventually, Universal McCann convinced the three biggest Web-access providers to go along with the $1 million, three-week-long new-media push in January—and voilà, the Coke name was put in front of nearly half of U.S. Internet users.

The Web pitch was part of the beverage giant’s larger “Coca-Cola…Real” campaign, featuring celebrities like Friends’ Courteney Cox and her husband David Arquette. Coke’s TV and print ads, like the interactive ads, were bathed in red, the result of a technique called “red wash,” whereby all visuals are seen through a red-colored lens. The interactive ads also included the catchphrase “Coca-Cola…Real” and a link to Coke’s TV commercial and other information.

“Universal McCann Interactive really pushed us to think about interactive advertising a little differently for this campaign,” says David Raines, vp/integrated communications at Coca-Cola. “We opted for impact over continuity and worked closely with our media partners to break new ground. We created ad positions from real estate that was not typically available to advertisers in order to deliver a true sight, sound and motion experience.”

This was Coke’s first campaign since 2001’s “Life Tastes Good,” launched prior to the 9/11 terrorist attacks only to be pulled due to customer sensitivities. Cohen says the latest campaign had to be “larger than life,” as it marked Coke’s biggest promotional push in almost two years. “The standard Internet canvas of a banner or skyscraper ad would simply not do. We had to rewrite the rules.” Others involved with the execution were Universal McCann’s Ritu Manchanda, vp/associate media director; Heather Rosen, media supervisor; and Erin Kiefer, senior media planner.

Cohen says that in the five years his shop has worked with Coke, “we had pretty much done what there is to do from interactive, from banner ads to very much in-your-face page takeovers to eye-blasters. We were trying to find someplace in the middle for this campaign.”

“David’s team really accomplished something that had never been accomplished before—having a screen totally dominated by a brand,” says Universal McCann’s Kim Kadlec, director of Coca-Cola AOR for North America. Kadlec stresses the importance of the Web in reaching Coca-Cola Classic’s young-adult target. “Internet is very important to Coca-Cola.”

ISP execs need not have worried that the Coke appeals would turn off their members. Even in an age in which consumers are going out of their way to avoid advertiser messages—with technology like Tivo and Web ad-blockers growing in popularity—some consumers were apparently anything but miffed to find their computer screens awash in red.

Rather than a barrage of complaints—which, Cohen admits, he and others connected to the campaign had prepared themselves for—he reports that the ISPs actually received “several hundred” positive e-mails from consumers the week the ads, which included animated bubbles and sound effects, were launched.

One user wrote: “I love the new look of MSN. Coca-Cola is my favorite soft drink and I just wish I could change the rest of my colors to the red with the fizzing bubbles. Let me know if this is available. I really like the change!”

Another enthusiastic consumer was more to the point: “Dude, Coke rocks. And site looks good with [the ad].”

Yahoo! saw Coke-related Internet searches the week of the launch shoot up by as much as 58 percent. Traffic to grew to five times normal levels.

Why did consumers embrace the ads? “It was something fairly unique. It had a novelty factor to it,” Cohen suggests.

It’s a miracle the ads ever saw the light of day, considering the initial resistance of the Internet companies involved. “There were a number of publishers who were very wary of ‘selling out’ to advertising in the most sacred of places, which is the editorial area, or the actual site,” Cohen recalls. That resistance wasn’t the only challenge: Cohen describes the logistics involved in getting the campaign off the ground as “pandemonium,” as negotiations involved not just ad people but folks from editorial and operations at the ISPs, a variety of reps from Coke, and the team at Atlanta’s Studiocom, which created the campaign.

But Cohen and company pulled it off—and getting out the message of the world’s No. 1 soft drink maker has never been as important. Coke’s archrival, Purchase,N.Y.-based PepsiCo., is prepping a major ad campaign for its signature Pepsi-Cola later this year. Coke and Pepsi face off as the beverage market overall—from bottled waters to sports drinks to iced tea and coffee products to milk-based drinks—is exploding.

“The challenge with a brand like Coke is, because it’s so ubiquitous, sometimes it fades into the background,” Cohen says. “We didn’t want it to be in the background.”