Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Coke taps into brand new internet craze

Coke taps into brand new internet craze
By Andrew Ward
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2006
Published: August 8 2006 03:00 | Last updated: August 8 2006 03:00
See the Bellagio fountain coke video at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=znoSaHwbHYg

Nobody seems sure how the craze started. But for the past several months, teenagers around the world have discovered that Diet Coke and Mentos mints are a volatile combination.

Go to any video-sharing website, such as YouTube, and hundreds of amateur films can be found showing bottles of Diet Coke transformed into foaming geysers or home-made rockets when mixed with the mints.

The phenomenon has provided millions of dollars worth of exposure for Coke and Mentos.

But it has also demonstrated how brands can develop their own online subcultures that companies are powerless to control.

The growing importance of the internet in shaping perceptions of brands helps explain why Coke last week launched its own interactive website where users are invited to post home-made video clips similar to those found on YouTube.

Coke is the latest in a growing number of companies to experiment with consumer-generated online content as brand-owners race to adapt their marketing strategies to an increasingly interactive media environment.

Last month, Wal-Mart, the US retailer, launched a website called The Hub that allows teenagers to create personal web pages, modelled on "social network" sites such as MySpace.

"Increased broadbandpenetration is opening up possibilities that didn't exist even two years ago," says Tim Kopp, Coke's vice president of global interactive marketing.

On its new website, Coke challenges visitors to make films about a different theme each month, with prizes offered for the best entries. The current brief urges people to submit videos that capture "the essence of you".

The site is the online dimension of Coke's latest global advertising campaign - using a new slogan: The Coke Side of Life - but the company says it is not looking for home-made commercials.

Instead, it wants the site to be a place for consumers to show off their personalities and creativity.

"Advertising can no longer be a one-sided monologue where we are always explaining what Coke is," says Mr Kopp. "We are trying to develop a dialogue with consumers and learn about how they interact with the brand."

Coke's experiment with consumer-generated content will be closely watched because the company is one of the world's biggest advertisers, famous for decades of iconic television campaigns.

Traditional advertising is losing its potency as media fragmentation makes it harder to reach largenumbers of consumers.

But Mr Kopp insists the website is designed to complement rather than replace other forms of marketing."We need to recognise that online is now an important part of the overall communications mix," he says. "But we're not saying, 'let's take all our advertising off the TV and put it on the web'. We need to develop different strategies for each medium."

Tim Stock of scenario-DNA, a brand consultancy, is sceptical about the ability of large companies to connect with consumers online.

"Coke has a better chance than Wal-Mart because it is a more relevant brand to young people," he says. "But there's nothing it can do that will match the power of the Mentos craze." He predicts that the Coke website will attract film and advertising students trying to put their work in the limelight but few of the more spontaneous, rough-edged videos posted by ordinary people on YouTube.

His doubts are vindicated by the 10 videos loaded on the website so far: all are either arty or quirky, but none of them is likely to generate much buzz beyond the confines of the Coke site.

The tame content isperhaps a reflection of the 15 pages of rules and guidelines that warn filmmakers against copyright infringements, vulgarity, defamation and a variety of otheroutlawed content.

Filtering is necessary to bar videos that would damage the Coke brand and to prevent the site being hijacked by its many critics.

General Motors learned the dangers of uncontrolled consumer-generated content earlier this year when it invited people to create online advertisements for a new Chevrolet sports-utility vehicle. More than 3,000 of the responses attacked the company over its safety record and alleged environmental abuses.

Mr Kopp says Coke is not trying to become another YouTube or MySpace.

"We are not an online business. We're a beverage business," he says. "But we have to develop compelling marketing platforms that are relevant to the lives of young people. We're not saying we've got it all figured out. It's a starting point."


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