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Coca-Cola: positioning, not purpose // The Attentionators

24 Feb 2020  |  Dominic Mills 


What has always been Coke’s brand positioning has now morphed into today’s must-have 'brand purpose' - and the business has fallen victim to the fad, writes Dominic Mills. Plus: how the 'attention movement' has gathered serious pace.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of the new Coca-Cola ad (above) by Wieden and Kennedy which broke last week, even if, at 1.30, it’s bit long.

The ad shows a fractious New York, where everyone argues (so what’s new?). People shout at each other. Buildings collapse. A rat gnaws at an abandoned toy. Two super-heroes have an unedifying scrap in the street.

And then Natasha Lyonne, of American Pie and Orange is the New Black fame, emerges. “Hey guys, this isn’t how you save the world,” she admonishes the super-heroes. “The thing is, everyone’s obsessed with being right about everything.

“If you asked yourself ‘could I be the one who’s wrong?’, maybe things would change for the better.”

Lynne is correct: what passes for discourse these days is characterised by certainty that you are right and everyone else is wrong.

Cue rat and toy clinking bottles of Coke together, and the endline “Everything’s better when we’re open”.

In many ways (and over many years, minus the odd deviation) this is classic Coke territory, with a direct lineage back to the 1970s blockbuster ‘I’d like to teach the world to sing’: Coke as unifier, as socialiser, as harmoniser, as the vehicle through which ordinary citizens come together.

Here’s a great example (below) from 2013 when Coke put two smart, connected, vending machines, one in Delhi, one in Lahore, that allowed citizens from India and Pakistan, two states with a visceral loathing for each other, to do simple things together like touch hands, do daft dance moves or draw peace symbols. It moved me then and it still moves me.

But the thing about Coke’s latest iteration is this: under an overall heading of ‘Uplift and Unite’, a proposition which aims to bring together an increasingly polarised world, it’s being badged as brand purpose.

Here’s Coke Europe marketing boss Walter Susini giving it the full grandstand: “There is a fundamental truth that no matter where you look today, in any country around the world, we are more divided than ever. Coca Cola is a brand that needs to embrace different angles and facets, and we need to talk about the problems that are relevant today. We will never shy away from social issues.”

Hmm. Well I have no argument with Coke’s proposition that it is a brand that brings people together ('in purrrfect harmoneee’, as the song goes). But to claim this is taking a stand on social issues is several steps too far. Taking a stand (as any politician can testify) invariably involves displeasing some people. Being in favour of world peace etc hardly qualifies.

It seems to me that what has always been Coke’s brand positioning has now morphed into today’s must-have, which is brand purpose. And Coke has fallen victim to the fad.

So what, in this case, might make the difference between brand purpose and brand positioning? I’d argue that if Coke was serious about bringing the world together (in whatever way it chooses to define that) it would actually do something, as opposed to just making nice ads and talking about it.

But I see no evidence of that.

And nor do I see any evidence of such purpose being embraced at the top level by Coke itself. How do I know that? If you go to its UK corporate website, this is what you find as its mission statement:

• To refresh the world in mind, body and spirit
• To inspire moments of optimism and happiness through our brands and actions
• To create value and make a difference.

Not a word about taking a stand on social issues or peace and harmony.


Attention: on a roll

It’s not as if the entire advertising industry had forgotten the basic rule, which is that if no-one pays attention to your ad you’re not even at the starting gate.

But it just seemed like that; somehow, with all the shiny toys at their disposal, the idea that attention mattered got shoved to one side.

Magazine marketing body Magnetic was one of the first to get the ball rolling a year ago with its Pay Attention study which, incidentally, picked up a Mediatel Research Awards gong last week.

As is often the way with these things, the industry can be initially slow to get on board, but then there’s a sudden rush.

To me, this growing interest in attention mirrors the way context, as opposed to audience, has gained traction. With Google terminating third-party cookies, context becomes more important. And context is clearly one factor in attention.

Let’s call the people behind the movement ‘The Attentionators’.

Exhibit #1: Prepping for a Magnetic session in Manchester later this week (26th February) I came across The Attention Council, a group of like-minded professionals who want to get the industry to see attention as a valuable metric. It launched in November last year, but I missed it the first time round.

If the idea intrigues, the Council is running its first session in the UK on March 11 at the Guardian.

Exhibit #2: One of the prime movers in all this is Karen Nelson-Field, professor of media innovation at Adelaide University (now there’s a job title to savour), who has just published a book called The Attention Economy and How Media Works.

Also next week, she will be on stage at the ISBA conference, meaning she can speak direct to advertisers.

Exhibit #3: Some clients are already taking this on board. Mike Follett of eye-tracking outfit Lumen (also a member of The Attention Council) reports here on how it worked last year with the Co-op on an ‘attention-focused’ campaign — the first time I’d ever heard of such a thing.

Exhibit #4: Agencies are waking up to it too. The Co-op campaign was run by Dentsu Aegis, and it is no coincidence that its Amplifi unit is behind a big study into attention and, from what I understand, also talking to other clients about this.

And so it spreads. That is not to say attention will become an overnight sensation. There are many issues to be debated. What is it, for example? Brain and eye together, or is one sufficient? How long do you need attention for? What is the influence of device on attention? What other factors — creative, flighting and so on — have a bearing? Does attention mean different things in different media? And how do you turn it into a useful and actionable metric?

The fact that it is highly unlikely we will ever reach consensus on these questions may not, in the end, be that important. What really matters is that agencies and advertisers factor in attention right at the beginning of any campaigns they run.

‘Attentionators’ — keep pushing.

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KarenNelson-Field, CEO, Amplified Intelligence on 24 Feb 2020
“Hi Mark - people often misinterpret the work of Heath - he doesnt say one doesn't need to pay ANY attention for advertising to work, he describes the concept of low attention processing where someone doesn't need to be paying full eyeball popping attention for an ad to work. We see this too in the work we did with Dentsu in 2018/19 - see WARC article of mine: The High Value of Low Attention, or my latest book on The Attention Economy. You are also correct, audio advertising (which cannot be measured by gaze techniques, we measure this in other ways) plays a role in advertising effectiveness. More on this to come.”
MarkBarber, Planning Director, Radiocentre on 24 Feb 2020
“Of course it's vital that ads are noticed*, but you have to wonder whether 'Attention' will just be another difficult-to-quantify intermediary measure of success thrown into the mix (like 'Engagement') that will lead to a lot of 'interesting' conference sessions but no real change in practice. More fundamentally, does the need to create the Attention Council suggest that people haven't been actively planning to get ads noticed?

*actually, there is a lot of evidence from a range of sources that pople DON'T need to be paying attention for advertising to work (ref: Robert Heath 'low attention processing'). Because it plays out in real time and doesn’t demand primary visual attention, audio advertising is unique in that it can be heard as intended even when people are doing other things. Radiocentre's Hear and Now study proves that listeners are able to absorb the detail of radio ads when they are participating in other tasks or activities at the same time.”

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