CAMPAIGNS: Product Launch - Nothing's vanilla about Coke effort

Client: Coca-Cola North America
PR Team: Weber Shandwick Worldwide
Campaign: Vanilla Coke Launch
Time Frame: April 15, 2002 - May 8, 2002
Budget: Under $500,000

The cola business has been flat, growing only a fraction of a percent per annum in recent years. And the world's top beverage company, Coca-Cola, has been widely criticized for failing to innovate along its flagship brand as compared to its competitors. While many contend that Coke is the master of innovation around the globe, at home in the US the company realized it needed to communicate more forcefully on this issue.

The launch of Vanilla Coke proved a perfect opportunity to do so.

Strategy

To pull off a successful launch and generate trial of Vanilla Coke, Coca-Cola had to satisfy the thirst of two different audiences. The company needed to control the debate in the business media over how brand extensions add or subtract from shareholder value. In the consumer sector, it needed to address the generation gap between older Americans whose relationship to Coca-Cola is sacrosanct, and a jaded youth that drives sales and consumption, but demands relevant marketing.

Tactics

A concurrent business and consumer media strategy was planned for May, but leaked information resulted in an article in the Financial Times.

This forced Coke to move on the business angle early. Spokesperson Ben Deutsch says the key was to drive home the innovation message. "That was primarily done to make sure that the messaging was accurate, and the speculation would not go beyond the facts, he said. "There was a great deal of speculation going on six to eight months prior in trade publications."

Immediately following the business announcement, the company was flooded with interest in the launch of Vanilla Coke. The strategy was then adjusted to leverage the media's interest to generate buzz for the upcoming consumer launch.

According to Mart Martin, director of public and media relations at Coca-Cola North America, product-introduction strategies were organized around two themes: Coke's "fountain heritage, and Vanilla Coke's "unexpected personality. This played on the nostalgia of baby boomers who remember soda jerks adding vanilla to Coke in the halcyon days of the 1950s and 1960s. "But how relevant is the soda fountain to teens today? The fact is, not much, says Martin.

Through a late-night internet search, Martin discovered the Vanilla Bean Cafe in Pomfret, CT (pop. 3,800). Using this tiny hamlet as the focus for a launch of this scale dovetailed with the strategy of doing something unexpected. "The Bean also sat at the bottom of a hill, which allowed Coke to set up a cinematic dawn arrival of the first Vanilla Coke delivery for live broadcast by attending media.

The delivery truck was wrapped with the new product graphics. When it rolled up to the cafe, the crowd of 500 local citizens parted to greet its arrival. "They erupted with excitement when the driver lifted the door to hand out the first bottles, says Martin. "It was dramatic. It was great TV."

Concurrent with the Pomfret event, Weber Shandwick booked taste-test segments on the morning network shows. The agency also seeded the crowds outside the studios with Vanilla Coke for reaction shots.

Following the morning media blitz, Coke transported cafe employees and other guests on a specially wrapped bus to Manhattan for a launch party at the NYU hipster hangout Pressure. "The move symbolically transported Vanilla Coke from its soda-fountain heritage into the 21st century," says Martin.

Results

The ubiquity of Vanilla Coke on May 8 across all major networks and in all major daily newspapers was cause for The Daily Show with Jon Stewart to lampoon the launch that night - a result that Martin wears like a badge of honor.

More importantly, however, John Sicher, editor of Beverage Digest, announced that for the month following the launch of Vanilla Coke, it was the top-selling 20-ounce soft drink in supermarkets and drug stores across the country.

Future

Subsequent promotions at concerts and other local events are ongoing, and are being handled by local bottling organizations.

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