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 campaign was called “Project Connect” internally, but later became known as the “Share a Coke” campaign.
The context and timing are important to this story because the Share a Coke campaign was pioneering in many respects.
Large brands have always been hesitant to sell directly to the end consumer because they had an established distribution network of wholesalers and retailers to be mindful of. Social media platforms were also in their infancy and the concept of virality which dominated this period within the SaaS startup space was not used by large brands either. Product customization had been used before by smaller brands, but not at any significant scale (a.k.a mass product customization) because the technology was not available.
The team was looking for ways to strengthen the brand within Australia’s young adults’ minds and inspire shared moments of happiness (in both the real and digital worlds). The team successfully managed to leverage the power of our first names to do so. They executed in a playful, social way which was outrageously successful.
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
This story starts in Sydney, Australia in 2011. Lucie Austin explains the impetus 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 explains the sales challenges 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.”
As a large budget company, they had a lead advertising agency on retainer (Ogilvy Australia), but this campaign warranted a pitch by other agencies too in case their ideas for solving the challenge 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. Jeremy explains what transpired.
“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.
“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 its packaging. The limited edition nature of the bottles would leverage implied scarcity – 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 goals they wanted to achieve
- The primary objective was to increase their sales leading into the summer period in Australia, specifically within the young adult target segment.
- The second was to reactivate light-buyer customers
As long-time supporters of the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute, they knew it was lucrative from a growth perspective, to reactivate the light-buyer segment of the market. This is the segment of the market who purchase Coke infrequently. Marketing laws prove this is where the largest source of growth lies with any brand.
The team would encourage brand engagement with a highly emotional messaging strategy on the premise that it should lead to interest, purchase and brand advocacy.
Virality could be leveraged via the simple ‘Share’ call-to-action. Each successful exposure will result in that person telling another person about Coke and wishing to share a bottle with them. This would essentially double 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. This campaign would stretch the team to the limit.
“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.”
A powerful ‘Share a coke’ message alludes both to purchase and advocacy. This is a powerful Call-to-Action (CTA). It wasn’t a simple message to just ‘Buy a custom coke’ or ‘Get your own personalized Coke’. It was a soft sell message, which leverages a core human emotional need for social activity.
Media and Brand Contact Points
While most of the public will only be aware of the customized product labeling side of the campaign, the broader promotional activity which supported this entire initiative was just as critical to ensuring success.
The campaign had a variety of ‘above the line’ and ‘below the line’ media which all encouraged behavioral action.
- The individual can personalization kiosks- inside major shopping centers (Westfield) around the country
- In-store distribution of customized bottles throughout the retail network (major grocery chains)
- TV advertising
- Newspaper advertising
- Social Media (Facebook)
- Outdoor (billboards, transit)
- SMS and Email
- Publicity (press releases, radio, newspapers, online publications, TV)
- Promotional events (t-shirt giveaway merchandise
The campaign was launched in the run-up to the busy Christmas retail period which takes place during Summer in Australia.
Customers could purchase a personalized 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 onto the billboard via SMS. They 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 which they could share with their chosen friend via Facebook and/or email.
A large amount of social media content was created by encouraging consumers to participate in the campaign. This was established by specifically targeting those consumers who very active on social media.
Coca-Cola made these consumers the creative directors of the brand allowing them to promote the brand and encouraging personalization by participating in the process. Customers could express themselves creatively through storytelling while staying in touch with their friends.
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 by large brands in Australia. This presented a challenge but would turn out to be a giant success story.
“…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!”
Over the summer of 2011/2012, Australians scrambled to find their friends names. They lined up for hours to get names printed on mini cans and sparked social media conversations that took the message internationally.
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 unexpected surprise came from the people who were buying Coke to show others that they cared for them and missed 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.
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.
“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.”
Why the ‘Share a Coke’ Campaign was 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.
Share a Coke Customization and Personalization Technology
Since 2011’s launch, Coca Cola have moved their bottle personalization process into the cloud via a DTC website. Read how SPiff3D mass personalization technology is powering this process for the 2020/21 campaign in Australia here.