The last Coca-Cola ad campaign I remember being launched was “Open Happiness,” which included a catchy jingle that never once mentioned the brand. I thought this was pretty clever and original. Fast-forward a few months and Coca-Cola is beginning a new campaign to promote the brand as being part of a healthy lifestyle because it’s now offering clearer nutrition/calorie labeling and smaller portion sizes. This whole approach is very reminiscent of the changes McDonald’s made to its menu shortly after the fast-food bashing documentary, Super Size Me was released. We all know junk food and sugary drinks aren’t healthy choices, so these attempts at promoting better nutrition and physical activity is kind of like pissing in the wind.
Granted, Coca-Cola’s latest campaign isn’t only about encouraging healthy lifestyles, (ha!) it also touts the beverage giant’s positive impact on communities and encourages people to “make a difference.” This campaign by the way is eerily called “Live Positively” and features a logo that consists of a plus sign and Coke’s signature red and white branding. I believe “Live Positively” was only recently introduced in the United States, but has been used throughout other countries for sometime. I understand the campaign is supposed to communicate empowerment and social responsibility, but the name and imagery reminds me of HIV/AIDS. I know that I’m not reading too much into “Live Positively” because you don’t have to be a master in semiotic analysis to correlate the campaigns symbols with HIV/AIDS. Project Red is a lot subtler in its branding and it’s goal is actually to promote HIV/AIDS awareness.
Even though the disease doesn’t carry the stigma that it once did during the 1980s, the idea of “living positively” is not an ideal. I know Coca-Cola means to inspire positive thinking and positive actions, but the campaign is susceptible to too much misinterpretation. And images like the one above do not help because what I see, and I’m sure others see, is a sort of life-monitoring reading that flatlines. It’s something I would expect Adbusters or other culture jammers to create, not the company itself.
Image via: Coca-Cola Newsletters
In July, Starbucks opened three new coffee shops in Seattle which noticeably lacked its iconic branding. One of the unbranded, remodeled stores will simply be known as 15th Ave Coffee and Tea—a strategy executives are using to capture a more community-oriented feel. Essentially, Starbucks is trying to present itself as a neighborhood coffee shop instead of a corporate conglomerate that ruins small businesses. Critics have referred to the shops as “Stealth Starbucks” and while this sort of marketing is rather subversive, we really shouldn’t be surprised that it has emerged. In an environment in which consumers are bombarded with brand messages and have developed a hyper-awareness and distain for perpetually invasive marketing, companies need to soften their approach. Displacing the familiar slogans, and visual cues that are synonymous with a brand may be a risky move, but several marketers are going this innovative route.
Recently, Coca-Cola launched its “Open Happiness” campaign which consists of a song and music video that do not mention/show the company or any of its products. The campaign seems to be a hit with consumers (mostly outside the U.S.) and according to Umut Ozaydinli, Coca-Cola’s global music marketing manager, “the lack of an in-your-face Coke message is “one of the key reasons” consumers have shown interest in the song” (via: NYT) While not entirely an example of a self-displacement and unbranding, Pepsi began a campaign in Argentina encouraging Argentineans to refer to the brand as “Pecsi.” Pepsi is essentially promoting the “bastardizing [of its] brand name” (via: Naked). The soft drink company is not taking its branding too seriously and welcomes consumer interpretations of its brand. It’s not to say that companies engaging in self-unbranding and displacement are relinquishing control of their corporate identity to consumers—I think it’s quite the opposite.
Starbucks, Coca-Cola and Pepsi are all taking proactive measures to remain relevant and competitive. These companies are catering to an audience whose persuasion knowledge is developing and is perhaps no longer easily susceptible to traditional marketing. Persuasion knowledge involves the interpretation of how people respond, interpret and react to persuasion and influence attempts (Friestad and Wright 1994). Ad messages, whether they occur as billboards, commercials, product placements or banner ads, are losing their effectiveness because of over-saturation. Marketing in general has become rather ubiquitous and invasive, which has resulted in the formation of a hyper-aware audience that sees through and ignores most campaign strategies. As audiences grow jaded and savvy, perhaps the next way for brands to successfully engage them, is by creating ads that do not look like ads. Marketing plans will need to emulate the covertness of Starbucks and Coca-Cola, but also entertain audiences on a personal level.
Friestad, Marian and Peter Wright. “The Persuasion Knowledge Model: How People Cope with Persuasion Attempts.” Journal of Consumer Research. Vol. 21, No. 1. (June 1994).