COKE website

How Coke has lost its bottle

In Examples by Peter Gearin

The soft-drink company’s efforts to transform the content marketing world have gone flat. Brand Tales’ review of Coke’s website, Journey.

Coca-Coca had a well-documented marketing epiphany in 2011. The global soft-drink leviathan, first poured in 1886, decided that branded content would be a great way to permeate its messages into millions of hearts and minds worldwide. Coke soon launched a website, Journey, and localised versions popped up around the world, including Australia.

Like Red Bull’s The Red Bulletin, Journey became the darling of those spruiking the virtues of engaging content aimed directly at informing and entertaining audiences. And what a potential global audience! Just think: 1.7 billion Coke products are consumed every day.

Coke’s former global marketing jack-in-the-box, Jonathan Mildenhall, spoke of the company’s plans on a video that was lionised in the content industry, Coca-Cola Content 2020. On the video, he speaks with passion about the kind of content that will attract the attention of audiences in the future. He called it “developing liquid content”.

“Each story must add value and significance to people’s lives,” he says. “Our content is the substance and matter of brand engagement to conversation. As such, it has to be the world’s most engaging content.” (The “liquid” part was something about separate stories remaining connected … but not too separate – “like molecules”.)

Anyway, Journey sprung from this molecular spring. It would have branded content that offered value, inspiration and engagement, and started conversations. Some of the content would be low risk, and others would have you wondering what the Coke team was smoking. The plan was to change the world.

The company was even happy to dance on the grave of corporate websites. “Coca-Cola made a big bet that storytelling is the cornerstone of 21st century communications,” wrote Ashley Brown, Coke’s group director of digital communications and social media, in 2013.

“We believed that great, brand-created stories matter, that exceptional writing wins the day, and that building a digital newsroom would lead not only to a transformation in how we engage with our consumers but also how we work. Like a modern election campaign, we believed that the best content is social at the core, digital by design, and emotional.”

Journey launched in Australia in 2014, about the same time Brown and Airbnb-bound Mildenhall departed Coke. Brown is now at Amazon.

The early days were promising. The US version of Journey covered a range of topics, making it much more like a long-form, general interest magazine than a corporate mouthpiece. Describing an early homepage on a recent blog post, US author and academic Mark Schaefer says: “This thing has spirit, it has soul, it has lots and lots of stories. Check out that navigation bar, folks: SPORTS, FOOD, ENTERTAINMENT, HEALTH. Does that sound like a soft drink company website? This content site was populated by professional journalists and Coca-Cola Journey represented bold and unconventional corporate storytelling at its best.”

So, based on what is being published now on the Journey website, has Coke’s bold content experiment succeeded? What has become of Coke’s stated plan to produce emotional, “exceptionally written” stories?

Schaefer thinks Coke has given up trying to be a brand publisher. He makes the broader point that some businesses shouldn’t even try. “Who wants to come to Coke for the latest news on sports, entertainment, or fashion?” Schaefer asks. “Leave that to ESPN and Vogue. Coke needs to be about Coke, which is more than enough. My advice is, don’t think like a publisher. Think like a marketer.”

Schaefer believes Facebook has played a role in Journey’s storytelling “failure”. “First, organic traffic to the Journey site declined precipitously because more people were viewing content on Facebook instead of clicking to websites,” he wrote. “The other factor is that with Coke’s buying power, it could create promoted content on social sites more cost-effectively then feeding their own publishing beast with original content.”

So, as Coke’s original 2020 deadline approaches, how is its content Journey? With the company having once said it invested heavily in storytelling, what does it now serve up to its Australian customers?

Well, it gives them lots of Coke … and Sprite … and Powerade. The level of branding on the site is suffocating. How many times do you think “Coke”, or one of its brands, is mentioned on the homepage? It’s 44 times (and that’s not including the small print).

Severely testing the theory that “things go better with Coke”, site visitors discover “five Coca-Cola innovations that blew their mind” or can explore the “iconic brand design” behind the Coca-Cola red disc or can meet the winners of people who bought part of the Coke sign at Sydney’s Kings Cross.

“The experiment is over and the corporates have won.”

The self-serving twaddle is topped off with a banner story imploring Coke lovers to find out the latest senior leadership appointments. Hooray! Among the jargon and weasel words is a new chief executive talking up … you guessed it – the need for innovation, change and new strategies.

Other highlighted stories include the results of a Powerade promotion starring brand ambassador and NRL footballer Billy Slater, and the magical properties of the Paraguayan stevia plant – a sickly sweet story about Coke’s sugar substitute.

To be fair, there are some stories that show how seriously Coke takes its social responsibility. One is an environmental piece that proclaims how Coke is now “water neutral” and that Coke is assisting Landcare regenerate bushland, but the articles are written with all the heart usually reserved for a report to the board of directors.

The verdict? The experiment is over and the corporates have won. Journey has become what Coke didn’t want it to be – just another company website. It spruiks the latest product or iterative can design, highlights the exploits of executives in shiny suits and bores our bloody pants off.

I disagree with Schaefer. I think it is possible for brand publishers to thrive; even soft-drink companies creating great sports and adventure stories. Red Bull is the obvious example. But with editorial resources continuing to evaporate at publishing houses around the world, not least in Australia, a committed brand will succeed if it can target an audience hungry for well-conceived and quality visual and written lifestyle content.

Journey’s failure might not be Coke’s fault, of course. Maybe Schaefer’s right on one thing and Coke is just giving the audience what it wants. Two of the three “most read” stories recently were How Coca-Cola Became an Aussie Phenomenon and 100 Days at Coke: Life as a Coca-Cola Social Strategist (although the link to that story was broken). If you were stranded in a desert, even New Coke probably tasted OK.

It’s disappointing that Coke no longer aspires to produce content that is consistently inspirational or genuinely informative. What’s perhaps worse is that most of what it does publish just adds to the noise. And that noise is similar to the opening of a flat bottle of Coke … pffffffttt.

References & links

Coca-Cola Content 2020 strategy video

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