Friday, August 12, 2005

Beacon No. 58: You've Told Me About It, But What IS It?


As today's Wall Street Journal and others remark, Coca-Cola Co. is blowing the intro of its new Coke Zero brand.

Trying to give its new soft drink some cachet with the kidz, Coke created a series of Coke Zero ads and a Web site giving readers messages like "He who is most chill wins" and "Your mind is your crib. Chill."

What's been missing from Coke's media blitz is any idea of what kind of drink Coke Zero is or why we should drink it. This gap is causing problems for sales, which the WSJ says are just 0.8 percent of supermarket soft-drink receipts.

It's past time for a big stumble by Coke. In 1985 the company ran aground with New Coke, a tasty beverage that it could have just released as a stand-alone drink with a different name. Instead, Coca-Cola marketed it as New Coke, a replacement for its marquee beverage. The whole world balked, sales plummeted, and the company reintroduced "old" Coke as "Coke Classic" with nothing more than a spiffed-up bottle. Things went back to normal for a long time.

Too long, apparently. The Coke execs who learned hard lessons from the New Coke debacle and its expensive aftermath are retired, just as surely as the people who led the U.S. armed forces during the Vietnam War were gone by the turn of the century.

So now Coke has produced an ad for Coke Zero "inspired" by the Vietnam-era "Hilltop" commercial, whose fresh look and catchy "I'd like to teach the world to sing" jingle made it one of the most famous ads of all time.

I can't think of anything that would signal creative bankruptcy more than re-shooting "Hilltop" as a Coke Zero hip-hop video atop some building in Philadelphia, with a sideburned Orlando Bloom look-alike lip-synching, "I'd like to teach the world to chill." But that's why I'm not in advertising.

Coke has finally gotten the message that they need to explain what the new drink is, and will begin hinting in new ads that Coke Zero is a zero-calorie diet drink that tastes a lot like Coke Classic. People who try it actually like it—but from a branding standpoint, the damage may already be done.

Didn't anyone at Coke consider that a) Coke Zero will probably just cannibalize either Diet Coke's or Coke's market share, not grow overall cola sales, or that b) last year's bomb of Coke's low-calorie C2 drink was a big hint that it was time to re-think things at Coke's Atlanta HQ?

In case anyone thinks I'm carping at Coke for no good reason, read this excerpt from the Coke Zero Web site's "Chillosophy" section, then try to tell me anything about Coke Zero, the drink, from it:

Protect Your Chill
Coca-Cola Zero is a new kind of beverage that features real Coca-Cola taste, and nothing else. Nothing that could potentially get in the way of your chill. And why should that matter? Because chilling is Important. It's not downtime that happens between things. It IS a thing. A thing worth celebrating and preserving!

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