Feature

Coca-Cola wants to unite a ‘divided, hostile world’ but it won’t touch politics

Coca-Cola is about to unleash a long-term campaign in Western Europe that cements its purpose as a brand with the power to unite people. Here its vice-president of marketing for EMEA, Walter Susini, explains what that means in practice.

Coca-Cola is investing in a huge purpose-driven marketing campaign across 10 markets in Western Europe that seeks to position the drink as one that unites people in what it sees as an “increasingly divided and hostile world”.

However, don’t expect the brand to take a stance on divisive political issues like Brexit or, indeed, Trump’s presidency as part of the push.

The long-term campaign, which launches next week, will run under the tagline ‘Everything is better when we’re open’. It’s part of a vow from Coca-Cola “never to shy away from social issues”, be that LGBT+ rights or sustainability. The brand’s own research and social listening has identified that advertising based around “empathy” will be key to driving its newly crystallised purpose.

The first TV ad is set in a hectic and hostile urban cityscape, and implores viewers to ask the question ‘Can I Be Wrong?’. Netflix's Russian Doll star Natasha Lyonne is shown coming to the rescue of a city full of angry citizens with a suggestion that society could change for the better if people claimed responsibility for their actions.

The positioning comes as consumers increasingly expect brands to stand for something. It also comes on the back of a flat sales in major European markets including Great Britain and France for the business in Q3.

Marking a shift in tone from Coca-Cola’s global ‘Taste the Feeling’ one brand strategy, the fresh proposition signals a more cohesive approach to marketing from the brand across Europe and Walter Susini, vice-president of marketing for EMEA tells The Drum it’s been a long time coming.

“Our brand is about bringing people together. We’ve been doing it for 134 years, it’s not a new, genius idea but we’re going to focus on what we do best, which is unite and uplift.”

Susini underscores how Coke sees itself of having a rich history of doing just that.

In 1964, the when social conservatives in its home city of Atlanta refused to support a dinner honoring Nobel Peace Prize winner Martin Luther King Jr, Coca-Cola’s then chief executive J Paul Austin threatened to remove its HQ from the city – two hours later, every ticket was sold. More recently, the soda giant has bought billboards supporting same-sex marriage; aired inclusive global LGBT TV ads; and run posters pleading with consumers: ‘Don’t buy Coca-Cola if you’re not going to help us recycle’.

'We don't need to talk about Brexit'

However, as its biggest rival will contest, navigating this type of purpose-driven marketing is a tricky business for mass-market brands.

In 2017, Pepsi received an immediate backlash over a campaign that riffed off the Black Lives Matter movement, showing Kendall Jenner quelling tensions between police and protestors with a can of Pepsi. In the UK, HSBC was recently forced to clarify that it’s ‘We Are Not An Island’ campaign wasn’t about Brexit, after dividing consumer opinion.

For Susini, Coke’s move to solidify what its brands stand for under a single tagline, doesn’t mean the brand is going to wade in on big, thorny political topics. It also isn’t “pretending to have all the answers” either.

“We shouldn’t take a stand on political issues, we should – and are – taking a stand on social issues. When we see divisions, discriminations, inequality, that’s where we want to talk. Coca-Cola doesn’t need to talk [about] Trump, or Brexit; these are not our issues.”

“We want to be a bridge that brings people together, we’re not interested in the other side. If [our ads] create debate then that’s even better. We don’t want to be loved by everybody, but taking a stand on social issues gives us the opportunity to have a clear point of view.

“Indifference is our worst enemy, so I’ve said to my marketing team ‘let’s take a stand, live with that and take the consequences’.”

Coke will tout its new positioning at major events like Pride, through its football assets - The Premier League and UEFA Europe – as well as Christmas and other religious holidays.

The campaign will also include digital, OOH, in-store and product executions.

Social listening will be used to track awareness of the campaign, with other KPIs including sales and how Coke is driving conversations around empathy.

Lessons from Unilever

Susini would be a Coca-Cola veteran had he not departed in in 2007 after five years to found his own consultancy. After five years on his own, he then underwent a four-year stint at Unilever overseeing creative strategy, content and design. He returned to Coke in August 2017, bringing with him lessons from Unilever’s own focus on purpose.

Last year, Unilever chief exec Alan Jope revealed he was going to cull brands in the FMCG giant’s portfolio that stood without a mission. Though Susini agrees with the principle, onlookers shouldn’t expect a cull of Coke’s 400-strong brand roster quite yet – instead, the marketer is working on solidifying what each one represents along with how each brand Coke owns can have “sustainable ambition”.

The issue of environmentalism is something which has dogged Coke of late, after its head of sustainability told the BBC that it had no plans to ditch single-use plastic entirely because there is still consumer demand for them.

The drinks giant produces about three million tonnes of plastic packaging a year (or 200,000 bottles a minute) according to the charity Break Free from Plastic.

With sustainability being a key focus for the new brand in its purpose-driven mission, Susini underscores its ambition to recycle as many plastic bottles as it uses by 2030. Coca-Cola Sweden is now the first market in which Coke makes all its plastic bottles from recycled material, but Susini admits he doesn’t know how long it will take for the switch to occur in the UK.

“The only barrier to this initiative is the amount of recycled plastic in the world. There is no other barrier, it’s the old story of demand and supply. There isn’t enough recycled plastic in the world, so we are working to scale.”

As well as making big changes externally, Coca-Cola’s own marketing department has recently undergone a shift of its own. In July, Coca-Cola restored its global chief marketing officer role, appointing Manolo Arroyo to take the helm. The position had been replaced by a chief growth officer role, occupied by Francisco Crespo who has since retired.

Though Susini admits the reframing of the title reflects a commitment to a bigger focus on marketing from Coca-Cola, he doesn’t believe it will affect the autonomy of Coke’s regional marketers either and suggests the idea that it killed off a marketing lead title was overegged.

“I’ve worked under both structures and I see no big difference,” he adds, saying the rejig has ensured marketing becomes more focused and less centralised.

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