5 Lessons Social Media Practitioners Can Learn From The Coca-Cola Archives

Last week I had the incredible fortune to meet with a group of fellow social media attorneys.  Since the meetings were held at the Coca-Cola headquarters we were treated to a tour of the Coca-Cola archives.  While the space may not be the impressive bank vault you might imagine (and no, the formula isn’t there), it was amazing to see over a century of materials affiliated with such an influential brand.

Since the topic was already on my mind for the meetings, I saw a number of items in the archives through social media lenses.  I realized that a number of key social media lessons tied well with items/concepts I spotted in the archives.  Naturally, this required a blog post.  While these lessons may not be new to you, perhaps the spin on them will be as interesting to you as the archives were to me.

The clear bottle is the original design for the Coke bottle, the green bottle is what we all recognize now. When in the archives, you wouldn’t want to drop either.

1. Differentiation isn’t enough, you must differentiate with a purpose

Yes, differentiation is required.  Social media practitioners know this.  Marketers know this.  Anyone in business knows this.  But differentiation by itself is not the goal, the goal is meaningful differentiation.  I found the story of the original Coca-Cola bottle to be a fantastic example.

As Coca-Cola became more popular, so too did copycat colas.  Coke attempted to differentiate itself through different colored bottles or labels but those efforts didn’t succeed.  Then Coke asked various bottle makers to come up with a completely different design that would be immediately identifiable in two scenarios:

  1. In the dark
  2. Broken on the ground

That’s a fascinating  list, and that’s what differentiation is all about–figuring out the ways you want to be different and driving it into your DNA.  It’s easy to be different–it’s hard to be different in a meaningful and unforgettable way.  Here, Coke wanted their bottle to be so obvious that even when broken customers would recognize it.  The picture on the right is our archivist, Ted Ryan (who, incidentally, is one of the bloggers on the fascinating history blog Coca-Cola Conversations that I highly recommend) showing us the original bottle that met this call in his left hand.  But since the middle was wider than the bottom it would tip over in production lines, so they shrunk that middle section to make the bottle in his right hand.  You’ve probably seen it before.

Social media practitioners know that great content is required to have a strong social media presence.  One way to make great content is to differentiate your content from others.  But are you differentiating your content so much that it could be identified after every share or even a casual mention?  Is your differentiation part of your DNA?

Campaign assets and a close-up of the sketch with wireframes.

2. Planning ahead can increase your assets’ value

While the digital age of word processing and Photoshop has led to faster asset creation the drawback is a decrease in thoughtfulness. In the early 20th century marketing materials were painted on real canvas with actual paint. A time-consuming process, the painter planned ahead so they would only need to paint once.

But the paintings were used in multiple formats.  Magazines, billboards, store posters–these were different vehicles with different size requirements all coming from the same painting.  Call it early integrated marketing, call it efficient creativity, call it whatever you want but the need for planning is obvious.

Over on the right is Ted holding up  a collection of draft sketches and the final painting for a Christmas campaign in the 1930s. The lower right sketch, which I’ve blown up below the main picture, shows how the artist was planning for the painting to be cropped in a variety of different ways. By planning ahead for those different sizes the artist ensured each final piece had the intended result.

Social media practitioners love reusing assets, but are we thinking ahead to make sure the work is compelling for each of the final platforms?

New Coke and Coke Blak. Epic fails.

3. Embrace failure

Let’s be honest: failure sucks.  Nobody intends to fail.  But when you’re trying something new you’re bound to fail most of the time.  And that’s far better than never trying something new and failing in a different and much larger way.

Coke has had its own share of failures, the most famous of which is New Coke.  Given that New Coke (as Coke II) was discontinued 20 years ago, I sadly feel the need to include a link to the story of New Coke.  Sad because doing so makes me feel very, very old realizing that some people I work with may have never heard this story.  (It was huge–Peter Jennings interrupted a soap opera to announce when Coke was bringing the original formula back.)

Another, more recent failure is Coke Blak, a coffee-flavored soda that was introduced in 2006.  But Coke has dozens, perhaps hundreds of such examples.  Oh, and they’re all kept in the archives.  They have aisles in the archives filled with products that failed.  While they may have multiple reasons for keeping the bottles and cans around, one notion that appeals to me is that you must learn from failure.  We all hear this platitude but rarely think of what it means.

First, you have to own your failure.  Second, you have to embrace it–you must figure out what went wrong and celebrate that learning.  Too often our immediate reaction is to brush it off, sweep it under the rug, or (the worst in my opinion) come up with completely different goals/metrics that attempt to redefine the failure as a success.  But we’re all smarter than that.  We all see the failure; what we need is an environment where it’s okay to fail so that we can learn.

When your social media campaign goes wrong, how does your organization treat the failure?  Do you cover it up or put it on a pedestal?

There are a lot of Fanta flavors out there but there is only one Bloody Grape!

4. Localization works

Lost in the discussions of how many hundreds of millions of users are on Facebook and Twitter is the small fact that the ability for content to scale is inherently limited.  Yes, a clever piece of content can go viral in seconds, but it will eventually hit against a language or cultural barrier that prevents it from reaching everyone.  The ugly truth is that if you want to reach different audiences you must localize social media content.

Localization does not require starting from scratch.  It’s entirely possible to create a rich enough content base that your various pieces can be customized but still feed into the entire picture.  Often times, when there isn’t enough planning or resources, it becomes too difficult to create this local yet integrated content so the content ends up being completely different.  As a great example of the right way to localize content while feeding into a single content base, look at Fanta.

Fanta is a fruit-flavored soft drink.  What fruit?  Every fruit.  Check out the list on wikipedia of which flavor is available in which country.  From Shokata in Albania to Sanguine in Tunisia, there are dozens of Fanta flavors.  This soda platform is highly localized–even the same flavor can taste different in different countries to accommodate local tastes.  And some cultures will allow for amusing flavors like Bloody Grape (it was a novelty flavor in Hong Kong in 2006) where others won’t.  It doesn’t matter to Fanta–there’s room for all flavors.

When you create custom content for different regions or groups, does it all fit back into your overall story?  Are you branching or are you tying?

All this could be yours if you just listen to your attorney.

5. Working with Legal has unexpected benefits

As if working with lawyers isn’t its own reward, it turns out there can be other benefits.  For Coke, one of those benefits was the entire archives project.  The archives began not as a historic collection but as an exercise in legal compliance.  There’s a lot of value in the Coke brand and its various uses of the brand.  When using the legal system to enforce certain intellectual property rights there are requirements to show ongoing and continuous use of the various brand assets.  What better way to show how Coke has been using its marks over the years than to actually show the marks used over the years?  Coke realized this long ago and the archives were born.

But beyond enforcing their intellectual property rights there are numerous benefits to having an archive.  First, it’s awesome.  Second, you have a treasure trove of cultural history that can become its own brand ambassador as you loan items to exhibits, send them to special events, etc.  Third, it can be a fantastic tool for teaching.  Coke realizes this as well–the archivist who gave us the tour told us he was recently asked to look at what Coke did during previous economic downturns to help provide some guidance on what they could do in the market these past few years.

The Coke archives are valued at over $75 million and it isn’t hard to see why.  At one point I held a piece of 100-year-old Coca-Cola chewing gum that was worth $8,000.  Yes, I gave it back; it tasted awful.

As social media professionals know, you must work with your lawyer on a variety of issues.  But you should keep your eyes open for the potential side benefits.  I’m not saying that the next time I ask you to make some edits to a contract you’ll have a $75 million collection a few decades later, but in a new space like social media you could end up creating the template for all similar transactions in the future.  How valuable is it to be a thought leader, to be the innovator?

I know, you want to rush out right now and go talk to your social media lawyer, right?  Go ahead, this blog post is done.



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Filed under Social Content, Social Marketing, Social Measurement, Social Media Lawyers, Social Platforms, Social Tracking

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