I once sat in a boardroom presenting two Coke TV commercials and online films I’d just produced to the company’s marketing director and her acolytes. This woman was a tough cookie who would entertain absolutely no deviation from the Coke brand’s three marketing platforms.
1. There is a physiological reaction to drinking Coke that the brain translates as a feeling of optimism.
2. This is a stimulant, therefore, that has the ability to bring people together through happiness.
3. It was the first mass-marketed cola, therefore anything else is a mere copy. Anything else meaning Pepsi.
When the lights came back on after I’d presented the first commercial, this so-called ‘tough cookie’ turned to look at me and with moistened eyes (I kid you not) she said: “John, this is lovely. I’m trying to think of a single Coke commercial in the last twenty years that captured the human connectivity and authenticity of brand red (their internal name for coke) as beautifully as this one.” I have to say, I had moistened eyes too when I heard this feedback. The commercial went on to appear in over 20 markets worldwide, by the way.
This is Where it Goes Wrong
Emboldened, I asked for the lights to be turned down in order for her to see the second TV commercial. Her eyes never left the screen once for the entire minute of the production. The lights came on. She looked at me and said: “I don’t think I’ve ever been as disappointed as I am now. I am honestly shocked at how you have completely misrepresented brand red. It’s aggressive, lacks the type of human connection we’ve spent billions promoting. We cannot have people who don’t understand the ethos of the brand. This commercial is rejected and I’m going to call your managing director tonight and ask him to reconsider his choice of personnel working on my brand.”
Psychotic outburst aside, this was a firsthand reminder of the ruthlessness that the Coca-Cola Company had exhibited for a hundred years when marketing this product. And successfully, too. It became the 20th century’s most valuable brand, because everything they did was focused on gregarious human behaviour. When there was conflict that affected the American people, they doubled their adspend with stories of optimism. Heck, the most famous commercial of all time was a bunch of kids standing on a hill top singing “I’d like to buy the world a Coke and keep it company”.
Coke as a Panacea
Cheesy as hell today. But when the unpopular Vietnam War was raging, this commercial was like medicine to an emotionally ill country. Even Nelson Mandela told a story about Coca-Cola in his memoir ‘Long Walk to Freedom’. The Chief Warden of the prison in which he was being held was covertly driving him around Cape Town. This was obviously fairly secretive, because he wouldn’t be released for another four years. The story goes that the warden stopped at a roadside cafeteria and went it to buy something. He left the doors of his car unlocked.
The world’s most famous prisoner sitting in an unlocked car in the middle of a city. He could have just opened the door and walked away. He didn’t know he was going to be released four years later. What he did know was that, had he walked away, he would have been hidden and sheltered by, oh, 95% of the country’s population. But he didn’t. When the warden reappeared and got back in the car, he had two cans of Coke in his hand. They both opened their cans and had a good laugh about the absurdity of the situation. This is a Coke story, a real story and it just wouldn’t have had the same resonance if it had been a different drink.
The Taste of AI
So I’ve just written over six hundred words about the brand that was built on human connectivity. So when I read this morning about an AI-generated version of Coke, called Y3000, my day both brightened with humour and darkened with despair at the same time. The former, because my experience of working on the brand was flavoured with constant fear that however many steps I took forward, one step back was all it took to get fired. So my humour was in the ‘just desserts” category. The latter (and not to be taken too seriously, honestly) was that of all the brands in the world I assumed would be untouched by AI, Coke would be it. Humanity’s last stand seems a bit extreme, but at least a plea to AI to leave just one thing to us.
Coca-Cola will, of course, survive this ridiculous idea. But as a product. The brand, which by definition is the connection between the product and the person, will take a hit. Not as bad as Bill Cosby trying to sell New Coke in the mid 80’s, admittedly. But a hit nonetheless.
After I finished reading the really funny Gizmodo article, which is linked in the first subhead, I have to report that my humour returned with aplomb.
Because Y3000 tastes awful, apparently.
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