NEWS ANALYSIS: Can Coke regain favour in the UK?

With Weber Shandwick out, Coca-Cola is hunting for a replacement UK corporate agency. David Quainton assesses the challenges faced by the iconic brand.

Coca-Cola is not just the UK’s top-selling grocery brand – it is the world’s best-seller. So it should come as no surprise that British agencies are tripping over themselves in their chase for the iconic soft-drink brand’s UK corporate account, following its unceremonious dumping of Weber Shandwick last month (PRWeek, 23 Feb).

Coke sales are remarkably buoyant. Research last week by retail trade magazine Checkout showed the firm had recorded a five per cent sales increase across its brands. Interestingly, the results proved that the launch of ‘bloke’s drink’ Coke Zero (much-lampooned, particularly by arch-rival Pepsi) had actually been a success.

But the agency that lands the Coke account will also find itself in charge of a brand undergoing major change, with the company feeling the strain of the increasingly healthy habits of consumers. Why have a sugar and caffeine-laden tin of syrup when you can buy an Innocent smoothie or carton of Tropicana?

Atlanta ‘seems to rule’
Cow PR co-founder Dirk Singer says there are other PR challenges for Coke. ‘The brands that are really capturing consumers’ hearts and minds are those that do things with a more human approach,’ he explains. ‘Coke needs to shake off the perception that it is a big, faceless and distant brand.

It needs to find a human face and engage with consumers at a more grassroots level.’

Although Coca-Cola is performing well, its competitors are quickly gaining ground. Last year, Innocent sales alone grew by 140 per cent. Coke has not rested on its laurels, launching orange-juice brand Minute Maid. But the drink has not taken off.

‘Minute Maid didn’t really work in a positioning sense,’ says one UK consumer PR chief. ‘The problem is that Coke’s Atlanta headquarters seems to rule. If a senior V-P says Minute Maid should be all about vitality then that’s what it will be, and this seemed to happen with the UK launch. Values differ greatly in the UK. It failed to understand the British market.’

Other UK agency PR chiefs, who also refuse to be named should they become persona non grata at Coke, reveal that one agency lost out on the Minute Maid account – which was won by Communique PR – because it dared to question the drink’s positioning. The unsuccessful consultancy in question had contended that Brits would never see Minute Maid as a healthy beverage because of its obvious link to fizzy pop maker Coke.

Furthermore, with consumer attitudes changing, there is a suggestion from some PROs that industry talent, in terms or soft-drink innovation, is shifting away from the 120-year-old company to newer, healthier brands.

But none of this is likely to scare off the big agencies. In fact, most would jump at the chance to have Coca-Cola on their client list. Not only because of the potentially target-busting fees involved, but because of the sheer impact of the brand.

The marque remains as famous as the Queen. It is the friendly face for holidaymakers all over the world looking for something familiar to quench their thirst. And Coke’s marketing (if not its PR) is legendary – it is largely credited with giving us the modern image of Father Christmas (from the ‘holidays are coming’ TV ads) among other things.

‘Coke does have a fantastic history,’ says a senior consumer PR director who has worked with a Coca-Cola brand.

‘But, especially in the healthy drinking space, it finds itself moving from a leader to a challenger brand – and that requires a culture change. Minute Maid could not find a point of difference in the market. I’m not sure Coke Zero can either.’

Intense pressure on brand
Minute Maid is tipped to relaunch in the UK this year, providing plenty of creative opportunities for the successful corporate agency. Meanwhile, Coke and carbonated drinks are where the struggle lies.

Senior PROs expect to see the red logo of the parent brand further aligned with music, under straplines that convey a sense of belonging or sharing. And Diet Coke (aimed at women) and Coke Zero are likely to continue to focus on distinct genders.

In the same way that Mars bars are being squarely aimed at active members of the public who are able to ‘offset’ the snack’s unhealthy properties through exercise, ‘red Coke’ may also have to focus on this area.

For Diet Coke and Coke Zero, the solution could be strategic alliances with ‘empathetic brands’ – effectively a more focused lifestyle PR push.

But as with all big companies, there is a chance that WS’s replacement will find itself caught in corporate quicksand. Certainly, there is likely to be less creative manoeuvrability than with a smaller brand.

Not only this, but the brief is complicated, spanning the 20 brands owned by Coca-Cola GB as well as UK bottler and distributor Coca-Cola Enterprises.

From accusations of Benzene poisoning to the ‘marketing to children’ debate (and, of course, the failed Dasani launch) Coke’s next agency is sure to face intense pressure from the outset. If the agency fails to perform, the Coca-Cola account could become something of a poisoned chalice.

Coke’s response

Lauren Branston, head of public affairs and communications, Coke: ‘People know us because of our brands and creativity, but we also want people to know us because of our corporate responsibility here and around the world.

‘Health and wellness are vital, and we are educating people about the value of nutrition and physical activity. We are also expanding our products to provide more vitamins, nutrients and other beneficial ingredients.

‘It doesn’t begin and end with health and wellness, we are also committed to the sustainability of the company. We are working to minimise our impact on the environment and are working with government, NGOs, communities and others to address environmental challen­ges affecting society and our business.

‘We strive to make a meaningful difference everywhere we do business. We leverage our unique strengths to actively support and respond to local needs. We use our distribution network for disaster relief and our marketing expertise to raise awareness of issues such as recycling and HIV/Aids.

‘Coke needs to work with PR agencies that understand how to bring stories such as ours to life, through the media and directly with our stakeholders.’

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