Bubbling Hubris
Coming Soon: Your Brand Advertised On Coca-Cola Bottles
by Robert Passikoff

Of course it had to happen eventually. A company so huge, a brand so dominant, a presence so worldwide, an organization so - let's face it - arrogant, that it claims the right to be considered a mass medium as well as a product!

Products becoming media? Talk about hopping the fence. Coca-Cola recently announced that because its earnings, exposure and image are so overwhelming, the brand's very size makes it a de facto marketing channel. According to Steven Heyer, Coke's President and COO, entertainment marketers might soon be paying for value-added association with Coke. And, because lots of U.S. businesses are entertainment-driven, other industries won't lag far behind.

Heyer says that because of the current marketplace chaos, coupled with the crushing dominance of the Coca-Cola brand (more than two billion "communication opportunities every day in the U.S. alone!"), Coke is no longer just a dose of sugared, carbonated water, but a full-fledged mass medium. And as such, it has the same right as any other media vehicle to charge for messages it sends the public.

Coke has reached reach-and-frequency saturation. This means they have outstripped the need for any medium other than their own existence. Escape velocity as applied to branding. Or perhaps "critical mass" is the better analogy. In either case, Coke apparently feels ready to reconfigure the advertiser-agency-medium triad - pioneers on the final frontier of marketing. Ad agencies, TV, radio, print, promotions companies, be afraid. Tremble at the looming Giant Shadow of Coke.

How big can Coke get? Following President Heyer's greed-is-good logic, the sky's the limit - and then some. Consider the potential: Every ad - even for Pepsi and 7-Up - could henceforth be an ad for Coke as well. But why stop at stomping category competitors? The Coca-Cola juggernaut crushes all that could conceivably siphon off the consumer income they so keenly crave. Watch out, WalMart. Watch out, Microsoft, Ford, SONY. Watch out, U.S. Postal Service.

All right, perhaps that's taking it a bit too far. But you really have to feel for brands like Coke, especially these days. In the 21st Century they qualify as charter members of the "Extraordinarily Well Know Generics" Hall of Fame. There's not much more they can do with their actual product. I mean, it's a wonderful "brand" and all. I'm second-to-none in my admiration for the brand, but let's face it, market growth based on last-century's strategies is limited. Everyone knows Coke. Nobody hates them. For most consumers they are acceptable as any other cola. Their distribution is ubiquitous. They come in cans, bottles, and liters, and they're on sale on an alternate-week basis with Pepsi. So great a brand, in fact, they don't really know what to do to become bigger. Or more profitable.

The problem is that all this transcends "brand." In order to grow and be profitable in the 21st Century, a brand has to be more than well known. More than respected. It has to "fit" into the values of your target audience(s). It's more than just understanding the consumer-brand commercial relationship. It's capturing and capitalizing upon values. And when you can no longer accurately assess the direction and velocity of those consumer values, it becomes impossible to profitably manage and grow your brand. It's a problem a number of other brands (also member of the Hall of Fame referenced above) are discovering to their sorrow: McDonalds is a good example. Every telecommunication company on the face of the earth is another.

Mr. Heyer has opined, that in this world "each person's life becomes a commercial market." And, to be fair, history has shown that Coca-Cola's earnings already surpass the GNP of more than half the nations on earth. Is it so far-fetched to imagine a day when some future CEO announces that Coca-Cola is no longer just a product and a mass medium, but a sovereign state unto itself? Someone should remind Mr. Heyer of his company's history with New Coke cyber-spokesperson, Max Headroom. The series in which Max starred depicted a world ruled by powerful corporations locked in ruthless competition for consumer dollars, and consumer rights and values be damned (or darned, as it was prime time network TV). It also posed questions about unethical and cynical exploitation of advertising and the quest for brand dominance.

Wow, talk about life imitating art! Can you just see it? COKE SECEDES FROM UNION! screams the banner headline on The Coca-Cola Times and talking heads on the Coke Channel analyze the implications - all positive, according to the anchor team.

Robert Passikoff is founder of Brand Keys Inc. (New York), a brand and customer loyalty consultancy. He can be reached at 212-532-6028, x12, or robertp@brandkeys.com. Visit www.brandkeys.com for more.

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