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The Share a Coke Story

Many people around the world won’t be aware that the globally-famous ‘Share a Coke’ campaign was first conceptualized and launched in Australia in 2011

The two employees who spearheaded the broader campaign initiative were Lucie Austin, who was the Marketing Director for Coca-Cola South Pacific and Jeremy Rudge who was the Brand Communications Creative Lead.

The campaign was internally called “Project Connect”, but later became known as the “Share a Coke” campaign. 

It arose out of an ambition to strengthen the brand within Australia’s young adults’ minds and inspire shared moments of happiness in both the real and virtual worlds. 

The campaign was pioneering in many respects, especially for such a large global brand at a time when social media platforms were in their infancy.

The team successfully leveraged the power of our first names, executing in a playful, and social way. 

While some will only be aware of the customized product labeling, the broader marketing campaign which supported this entire initiative was just as critical to ensure success.

From a humble beginning, Share a Coke went on to become a global phenomenon. The idea has since spread to over 80 different markets and has been running for the last 9 years via constant iterations. It was successful in reversing an 11-year consumption decline in the US, and won countless marketing effectiveness awards across the globe. 

Here’s the story of how everything unfolded. 

Note: quotes and content for this article were sourced from a number of public websites including https://www.coca-colacompany.com https://mumbrella.com.au/coca-cola-puts-peoples-names-on-bottles-in-share-a-coke-campaign-59657 and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SbyIYAaTo9w 

Where it all started

Lucie Austin explains the macro context behind the campaign. 

“Our research showed that while teens and young adults loved that Coca-Cola was big and iconic, many felt we were not talking to them at eye level. Australians are extremely egalitarian. There’s a phrase called “tall poppy syndrome.” If anyone gets too big for their boots, they get cut down like a tall poppy. By putting first names on the packs, we were speaking to our fans at eye level.”

Jeremy Rudge elaborates on the sales challenge they had to overcome. 

“Australia is one of the world’s most developed markets, which means growth is hard. We have a rich history of effective, innovative marketing. A few years ago, we created “Bottle Blast”, a campaign that eventually spread to 80 markets. It defined why people loved Coke, but it wasn’t making them buy more of it. Coke had become too familiar, too predictable. We were given a clear challenge by the head of the Pacific region to do something extraordinary. I remember Lucie saying, “We need to come back with something that makes everyone sit up because of its impact …and we only have a few weeks.”

The Brief

As a large budget company, they had a lead advertising agency on retainer to leverage for execution assistance, but also wanted to let other agencies pitch in case their ideas were better. 

Jeremy explains the brief they supplied their agency partners. 

“With no time to dwell on strategy, we wrote a clear and completely open brief that gave our agencies everything they needed to know as quickly as possible and full license to come up with their best stuff. We engaged our key creative partners in Australia, and one from Singapore. We told them, “That idea you’ve got tucked away that you’ve always wanted to do for Coke? Now’s the time for that idea.” 

Lucie summarized the brief as “…a 151-word “mass reappraisal” brief.”

The Pitch from the Agencies

A collection of agencies responded to the brief in a full day of pitches as Jeremy explains. 

“The second agency to pitch sold to us with a standout visual – a wall of Coca-Cola cans stacked horizontally, each with a name written in the Spencerian typeface. Fifteen minutes later, Ogilvy, our incumbent agency, came in and presented exactly the same idea in the same way. It was an extraordinary coincidence… one of the most bizarre moments I’ve ever seen in advertising. In the end, we went with our existing agency, Ogilvy, due to our long history with them.”

The Idea Takes Shape

The basic crux of the idea involved modifying the traditional label which ran around the Coca-Cola bottle to say ‘Share a Coke with [NAME]’ – where ‘NAME’ would reflect a popular first name in usage in that local market.

The team started by curating a list of the top 150 most popular names in the local Australian population. The central idea was to encourage people to share a coke with a friend or family member. 

Jeremy continues: 

“We started with 150. We knew we were only going to reach 42 percent of the population, even if we added generic names like Mom, Dad and Mate, so we purposefully made the invitation more about giving a Coke to someone else rather than keeping it to yourself. The sentiment of “sharing a Coke” with someone else broadened our appeal. The digital experience enabled people to send a virtual Coke to someone else via Facebook. As the campaign gained popularity, we did a second release where we let consumers vote for the next wave of names.”

It was the first time in Coca-Cola’s 125-year history that the brand had made a major change to it’s packaging. The limited edition nature of the bottles would leverage the powerful implied scarcity concept – increasing both sales and brand affinity simultaneously. 

Strategy, Goals and Objectives

The purpose of the campaign was to create a more personal relationship with consumers and inspire shared moments of happiness.

Lucie Austin explains,

“We are using the power of the first name in a playful and social way to remind people of those in their lives they may have lost touch with, or have yet to connect with.” 

While the true objectives of the campaign remain confidential, it’s rumoured that Coca-Cola had two main objectives they wanted to achieve

  1. The primary objective was to increase their sales leading into the summer period in Australia, specifically within the young adult target segment.
  2. The second was to reactivate light-buyer customers 

The basic marketing concept here is that it’s very lucrative to reactivate or introduce the brand again to the light-buyer segment of the market who purchase coke either infrequently or not at all. This is where the largest source of potential growth lies with any brand.

By encouraging brand engagement via a highly emotional messaging strategy, it should lead to interest, purchase and brand advocacy. 

The vitality concept is also leveraged where each successful exposure will result in that person telling another person about coke. Essentially doubling the campaign yield (2 sales for the price of 1). This contrasts with traditional marketing campaign objectives where the brand attempts to persuade singular customers to purchase.

Pre-Launch Problems to Overcome

When modifying global trademarks and designs, internal politics and legal compliance can be arduous. 

Jeremy explains

“There was a great deal of nervousness internally. Not so much about the idea, but about the scale of approvals we’d need to go through, and ensuring we had accounted for all risk factors. There were countless late-night conference calls with the global team in Atlanta, risk assessment meetings, and conversations with trademark counsel, bottling partners and other stakeholders.

The real creativity kicked in when we had to bring the idea to life and problem-solve the “how.” Originally, the idea was conceived with the names printed in the traditional “Coca-Cola” Spencerian script. We couldn’t do that due to trademark issues, so we created a brand-new typeface inspired by the “Coke” logo. We call it the “You” font because it’s about you, the consumer, not Coca-Cola. That typeface really made the campaign and has since been used across the world in different ways including for a global Coca-Cola Christmas campaign. We also had to figure out how to get the Coke red color exactly right on the digital printers we used to label the packs, which took a long time.”

The Execution

Messaging Strategy

A powerful ‘Share a coke’ message alludes both to purchase and advocacy. This is a powerful Call-to-Action (CTA). It wasn’t ‘buy a custom coke’ or ‘Get your own personalized Coke’ etc. It’s a soft sell, wrapped up in an core human emotional need for socializing. 

Media and Brand Contact Points

The campaign had a variety of ‘above the line’ and ‘below the line’ media which encouraged behavioural action. 

  • Individual can personalization booths – inside major shopping centres
  • In-store distribution of customized bottles throughout the retail network
  • TV advertising
  • Newspaper advertising
  • Social Media (Facebook)
  • Outdoor (billboards, transit)
  • Radio
  • SMS
  • Competition
  • Publicity (press releases, radio, newspapers, online publications, TV)
  • Promotional events (t-shirt giveaway merchandise 

They launched the campaign in the run-up to the busy retail period of Christmas which takes place during Summer in Australia.

Customers could purchase a personalised bottle or can at a supermarket (or other major retailers), or get their name printed on a can of Coke for free at one of 18 Westfield Shopping Centres around the country.

At select outdoor sites, the names of passers-by will be projected on to the billboard via SMS. They did used the iconic Kings Cross billboard in Sydney to do this. Consumers had to SMS their friend’s name which would be displayed live on the iconic Coca-Cola sign located at Sydney’s King’s Cross.

The user then would receive an MMS via which they could share their chosen friend’s name lit up in lights through Facebook or send him/her mail.

A huge amount of social media content was created by encouraging many consumers to participate. This was established by specifically targeting those consumers who very active on social media who engage with their friends by sharing photo and posts on Facebook, Twitter etc.

What’s more, is that Coca-Cola made these consumers as creative directors of the brand inducing them to promote the brand encouraging personalization in a prospective way.

This lead to many users engaging themselves on various social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Connecting with the consumers at a personal level.

Coca-Cola’s brand was emotionally connecting with its customer through the power of personalization and social. .

Consumers like to self-express themselves creatively through storytelling and staying in touch with its friends and as a result, the campaign leveraged on this kind of consumer behaviour. Moreover, Coca-Cola wanted to engage with its customers and at the same time promote its own brand name.

For instance, when a consumer shares a name-branded Coke bottle with his father, he feels as he is honouring his father rather than promoting the Coca-Cola brand itself. Moreover, by taking and sharing photos with the #shareacoke hashtag on social media, it drives more personal online media content which leads to many shares across.

A partnership with a mainstream radio station network at the time (Southern Cross Austereo), allowed people to download one of 150 ‘name songs’, chosen via the Coke Facebook page. A competition was combined to give consumers the chance to win four $50,000 cash prizes.

TV ads, created by Ogilvy Sydney, aired during major sporting event broadcasts and other prime-time spots. 

Lucie was quoted in the press release as saying, 

“We are using the power of the first name in a playful and social way to remind people of those in their lives they may have lost touch with or have yet to connect with. We’ve put names on Coca-Cola bottles so consumers will have fun finding their friends’ and family members’ names and then enjoy sharing a Coke together.”

Post Launch Problems to Overcome

Jeremy explains some of the risks they encountered and had to mitigate during some of the creative execution roll-out of the campaign. 

“We gave people the opportunity to “Share a Coke” with someone via the big, iconic digital sign at King’s Cross in Sydney. They texted us the names they wanted to see on the screen. We knew people would want to publish profanity and abusive language, so we had to put filters in place. We came up with a “block list” of over 5,000 words our printers literally could not print and the sign could not display. Getting there was a pretty funny process. We had some very senior people in a room literally brainstorming swear words. Not surprisingly, more than half of all texts sent were rude words we couldn’t use, so the profanity filter worked.”

Back in 2011, Facebook and social media was relatively new and poorly understood at commercial levels by large brands in Australia. This also presented both a problem and what would turn out to be a giant opportunity. 

“…managing in social media was still relatively new for brands. It was the first time we’d had digital at the heart of a campaign. Instagram had only 10 million users worldwide at the time and wasn’t factored into our planning. The markets that followed us had an entirely new channel to work with.”

Jeremy also explains how demand outstripped their planned capacity. 

“The overwhelming demand for the personalized cans surprised us. They quickly became a must-have object of desire. We sent traveling kiosks, which consumers could visit to customize a can of Coke, to major shopping malls across the country. The queues stretched around the block… our products became the Christmas gift of the year [summer in Australia falls over the holidays]. Kids would usually line up for Santa’s Grotto to have their picture taken. I remember seeing the activation in Westfield, where poor Santa had no one to put on his knee!”

The Results

Over the summer of 2011/2012, Australians scrambled to find their friends names, lined up for hours to get names printed on mini cans and sparked social media conversations that took the message international. 

Jermey explains more detail about the tactical execution side of the campaign. 

“We intentionally seeded the campaign with opinion leaders and influencers to get them to them lead the conversation and encourage others to seek out “Share a Coke” for themselves. Celebrities were picking up the bottles and talking about them without any formal connection to us. Pretty much immediately, we knew we were on to something. Social media chatter and media coverage blew up. Google search rocketed. We always thought it would be big; we were just nervous about getting to market and getting it right. So when it launched with a bang, it was more of a relief than a surprise.”

Lucie talks about unexpected benefits that arose. 

“We were surprised by the degree to which consumers played with the idea and made it their own. I remember my husband and I driving past a church and noticing a sign with slotted letters, like Scrabble. It read, “Share a Coke with a Christian.” I thought, someone has taken the time to do this. I thought it was wonderful.”

Another surprise was that people were buying Cokes to show people they cared for that they missed them… from soldiers overseas in Afghanistan, to loved ones in hospital, to long-lost friends. We hadn’t really anticipated the packs being used in this emotionally powerful way. It was an example of how the public took the idea and shaped it themselves.

According to lead agency Ogilvy, Sydney, Coca-Cola saw:

  • 870% increase in Facebook traffic
  • 12 020 000 earned media impressions
  • 76 000 virtual coke cans shared
  • 378 000 custom coke cans printed
  • In 3 months post launch
  • Young adult consumption increased by 7% (campaign target market)
  • 5% more people were drinking coke
  • Transactions grew by 3%
  • Volume increased by 4%

In the Summer of 2011/12, Coke sold more than 250 million named bottles and cans in Australia – a nation of just under 23 million people at the time 

Anecdotally, Jeremy explains the thing that signaled to him that they were onto a winner. 

“I remember going to the finals of a standup comedy competition in Sydney, where 12 acts were doing short sets. Five of them had jokes related to “Share a Coke” – they used it to connect with the audience. That sealed it for me.”

International Expansion and Iterations

This simple idea captured the nation of Australia and led to the launch of the campaign in countries around the world including the United Kingdom, Israel, Norway, and China with more .

Jermemy explains how the success of their campaign was quickly noticed by other Coca-Cola market executives who in-turn rolled out the campaign in their localities. 

“New Zealand was second, then Asia. China was the most interesting one; they used nicknames on the cans. After the 2012 Cannes Lions festival [where the campaign picked up seven awards], the whole world was interested. We started getting emails from countries asking us how they could launch “Share a Coke”, so we built a toolkit to scale the idea.”

The reception of the “Share a Coke” campaign in Australia led to other countries in the Coca-Cola System adapting and iterating on the Australian campaign idea. They found their own unique take on the concept.

Lucie, adds how ubiquitous the campaign became within the Coca-Cola network. 

“I’ve actually gotten to live “Share a Coke” four times – in Australia, then New Zealand and in Europe twice – so I’ve seen it’s journey first hand. Every country has put a new creative twist on the idea. Great Britain, for example, celebrated the birth of the royal baby by inviting the world to “Share a Coke with Wills and Kate” on the iconic Coke sign in Piccadilly Circus. Amsterdam opened a pop-up store that exclusively sold personalized bottles and cans of Coke. 

Germany set up an online store where you could order personalized bottles to be delivered for home delivery. We’ve reapplied the German online store idea in NWEN this year. Turkey projected a virtual vending machine on a wall over Valentine’s Day to entice couples walking by. And South Africa created the adorable TV commercial, “Bobby”, which has been one of Coke’s highest-scoring ads ever.”

Share a Coke in the United States

In 2014, the US launched its “Share a Coke” campaign which used 250 of the most popular American names on the labels of their 20-ounce bottle product.

Just like in Australia, consumers were encouraged to find bottles with names that held personal meaning to them, share them with friends and family, then tweet about their experiences using the hashtag #ShareaCoke.

In 2016 a new variation of the campaign was introduced in the U.S. as the ‘Share a Coke and a Song’ campaign, with popular song lyrics printed on Coke bottles. The campaign was quite popular, earning the most-liked photo on Instagram at the time with Selena Gomez posting a photo for the campaign.

Share a Coke in the UK

Another version of the campaign was also launched in the U.K. in 2017, with over 75 holiday destinations now printed on the labels as opposed to names or lyrics.

Share a Coke in China

In China, “nicknames” were printed on the packs instead of first names. And Jonathan Mak was chosen to generate a design inspired by “Share a Coke”. Jonathan Mak is a student at Hong Kong Polytechnic, most famous for editing the Apple logo in remembrance of Steve Jobs. Jonathan’s re-working of the Coca-Cola Dynamic Ribbon device to depict two hands sharing a Coke won Grand Prix at the Cannes Festival of Creativity in 2012, making him the youngest person ever to do so. 

Share a Coke in Norway and Scandinavia

In Norway, Coke cans appeared on television in Norwegian Idol, while in London Kings of Leon tweeted photos of their bottles to 78,000 followers.

Scandinavia recruited people prior to launch to be in the TV, cinema, video and outdoor ads. Their ads featured people talking about who they would give a named pack to

Share a Coke in Israel

Building on the work the Australian team did with the Kings Cross sign, Israel used cutting edge geofence technology to turn the country’s most visible billboards into interactive signs that greeted people by name. Signs of the times, indeed.

In Hindsight

Jeremy and Lucie talk about what they learnt and how they could have done better in hindsight. These are important learnings if you wish to execute a product customization campaign for your own brand. 

Jeremy says, 

“We’d probably spend a fraction of what we spent on TV. As I said, there wasn’t the confidence in social media then that there is now. “Share a Coke” showed that this new landscape was here. There is still a belief in the marketing world that you need to spend big on media to make sure people see your ideas, but “Share a Coke” proved that you can focus your resources on building ideas people want.”

The Central Theme Which Made the Campaign a Success

In every country the campaign has been a success because of the positive experience of connecting with friends – an essential and universal part of the human experience. 

Lucie explains in more detail, 

At the end of the day, our name is the most personal thing we have. It’s our fingerprint… our identity… in one word. We gave consumers an opportunity to express themselves through a bottle of Coke, and to share the experience with someone else. The fact that your name is on a Coke bottle, it can’t get more personal than that! The campaign capitalized on the global trend of self-expression and sharing, but in an emotional way. Coke is big enough to pull off an idea like this, which speaks to the iconic nature of the brand. Who would want their name on a brand unless it was as iconic as Coke? “Share a Coke” found the sweet spot by making consumers famous through the most iconic brand in the world.”

The campaign encouraged 2 for the price of 1

Iteration: After the 150 names were released, people complained that they couldn’t find their name. So they created a Facebook competition poll to add the next 50 most popular missing names. This iterative flexibility, extended the campaign’s runway. 

Each year, Coca-Cola runs an iteration of this campaign and has been doing so for almost an entire decade. They would not do this if it didn’t have a strong commercial business case. 

Localization: each local market adapted the core concept to the nuances of their territory.