Seeing Red

Dec. 2, 2011

Scott Tingwald
Scott Tingwald

Seeing Red

Coke’s infusion of its classic color into the ‘polar bear’ campaign provides us with another case study in marketing and social media.

That didn’t take long.

News on December 1 that Coca Cola would cease to produce its polar bear-themed regular Coke cans (donned in predominately white and silver) ended a month of social media backlash from Coke drinkers who claimed to be confused by its resemblance to silver Diet Coke cans. Some even went as far as to argue that the classic Coke taste had been altered in the process.

Learning of this while running on my treadmill, trying to lose excess calories obtained by stanchly refusing to drink Diet Coke over Coke, my mind raced in many different directions.

My first thought was – score another one for social media. I could just imagine Facebook and Twitter blowing up with tales of regular Coke drinkers falling to their knees after mistakenly pulling the tab of their wives’ Diet Coke and taking a swig. I admit that I nearly made the same dreaded misstep while reaching into the crowded bottom row of our fridge this past month.

Like many, I also thought back to the New Coke fiasco of 1985, when Coke looked to reverse 15 consecutive years of eroding market share by launching the ill-fated New Coke formula. Back then, without the aid of social media, it took 79 days for Coca Cola to reinstate Classic Coke into the market. My guess is that, if that would have happened today, it would take 79 minutes for Coke to pull the plug given that messing with the Coke taste is a much more egregious error in the mind of the consumer than simply altering the can.

Finally, I marveled at the sheer power of the Coke brand. What other brand can you think of where a temporary altering of the packaging could cause such an uproar? Especially given the fact that the root of the campaign was to benefit the World Wildlife Fund and that Coke had traditionally altered the appearance of their cans during the holidays anyway. Just don’t mess with the red, I guess.

In retrospect, I am a little surprised that the suits at corporate didn’t see this coming. Being the daily stewards of arguably the most influential brand (and, color, for that matter) on the planet should have raised some red flags when making such a bold move – even with altruistic motives in mind.

Or maybe they were shrewd enough to know exactly what they were getting into – knowing what would ensue and that the worst thing that could happen is that they simply introduce a new “red” polar bear version (which they have) with little negative effect on the brand in the long run. In fact, all this will probably boost awareness, and sales, of the campaign. I can even see some Coke enthusiasts rushing out today to buy 24 packs of the silver and white design that may still be on shelves just to save as collectors’ items.

No, this isn’t 1985, where the New Coke introduction was clearly a case study in crisis communications. It is, however, yet another interesting window into the mind of the consumer thanks to social media … and apparently a burning distain for Diet Coke.

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