According to legend, in the early 1970s, an ad exec named Bill Backer was stuck at the Shannon Airport in Ireland and noticed something strange: Although tempers ran high during the actual layover, the next morning, the same irate passengers were talking and joking over a few Cokes.
Backer, an ad man on the Coca-Cola account at the time, scrawled the sentence, “I’d like to buy the world a Coke” on a napkin. At the time, such a feat was technically possible. If you knew someone on the other end of the world, you could conceivably mail them a Coke or perhaps wire them the money for one.
Not many people found reason to execute that option, though. Besides, in the spirit of the ad, the idea seemed to be to buy a Coke for a stranger in a faraway land, rather than someone you knew who was in a foreign locale. In the Nixon era, Backer’s idea was a fanciful notion at best.
Flash forward to 2012: Google is looking for a way to market itself to big advertisers. The search giant settles on the idea of updating classic ads from the analog era. It chooses Backer’s 1971 “Hilltop” ad, among a handful of others selected, for “Project Re: Brief,” as it’s known. Google reinvisions the campaign as a mobile experience. Now, consumers will be able to buy the world a Coke, or at least they’ll be able to purchase one for someone in a faraway place. “We wanted to show what our technology was capable of, not talk about it,” says Aman Govil, product marketing manager at Google.
Back in 1971, the Hilltop ad was a step forward for Coke’s marketing because it positioned the brand as a catalyst for making connections, not just as a refreshing treat. A digital interpretation of the ad 40 years later made those connections possible. Using the mobile app, a consumer in New York could buy a Coke for someone in Buenos Aires. In addition, that consumer could watch a video using Google Maps and Street View to see the can traveling across the globe. After the recipient gets the Coke from one of the custom vending machines, the sender can watch a video of the person’s surprised reaction and perhaps get a thank-you note, if the recipient chooses to do so. Later, the sender can pass on the video to friends on Facebook, Twitter or Google+. The goal: Prompt real-life moments that underpin Coke’s current “Open Happiness” positioning.
“What we’re trying to do is move from online community talking about happiness to provoking it in real life,” says Jackie Jantos, global creative director at Coca-Cola. Jantos’ motto is “Don’t tell people a story, give people a story to tell.”
Did it work?
As a marketing vehicle for Google, the program did its job, winning a Mobile Grand Prix at the Cannes Lions ad festival in June.
However, it should be noted that the campaign was not huge. In fact, it encompassed a total of four vending machines in New York, Buenos Aires, Cape Town and Mountain View, Calif. “From a scale perspective, it was a B2B campaign from Google where Coke was a partner,” says Govil. “The entire project was an experiment intended to inspire creativity — to make sure people knew the real opportunity in digital and display advertising, and that the medium wasn’t viewed as secondary in any way,” says Drew Ungvarsky, who worked on the campaign. “Having created a campaign that pushed the creative and technical boundaries relatively far forward, we’ve opened the door for brands and campaigns to reach similar and even higher levels of success.”
That said, there’s no reason the program could not be scaled worldwide, and Coke is intrigued by the possibility, Jantos says. The brand’s not alone: Pepsi unveiled the same capability for its vending machines in 2011.
Whether consumers will embrace such altruism in uncertain economic times is a mystery. However, the program represented some creative thinking in a category — mobile advertising — known for couponing, deals and search. The days of consumers sending Cokes on global friendship missions may be far off, but at least Google showed what’s possible. It’s not as ambitious as teaching the world to sing in perfect harmony, but it’s a start.