Brand Debate: Focus On Product Or Purpose?

Mark Di SommaJanuary 25, 20164 min

Coke’s new campaign direction feels like a push back towards product-focused advertising. The decision to move away from the more abstract concept of happiness towards a campaign that focuses much more specifically on the taste and the bottle begs the question: are marketers trying to be too clever? Have we forgotten that we’re here to sell?

As the drive towards articulating purpose has ramped up in recent years, the criticism made by some is that such lofty ideas over-intellectualize what is essentially a relatively straight-forward business. Critics maintain that marketing has no role in world affairs and that building content-rich strategies around an ambitious purpose risks distracting businesses from their core purpose which is to compete, market and grow. On the face of it, Coke seems to agree in its latest campaign; increasing its marketing spend and doubling down on the product to put the drink range front and center of the brands’ conversations with consumers.

The point of debate is whether this is because the focus on purpose has failed to move the dial or whether Coke has decided to adopt a more single-minded strategy in the light of falling soda sales generally. In other words, perhaps they’ve realized that having a powerful purpose only works to a point if the inclination to buy your products in the first place is turning.

Another point from this Muhtar Kent interview is worth noting: the decision to consolidate the equity of the brand. While Kent says sharing the campaign across all the brands emphasizes the range of choice, I think it is far closer to the strategy of “squares” employed by the Duke of Wellington to stave off the French cavalry attacks at Waterloo. Bringing the brands together intensifies Coke’s ownership of all the offerings, enabling the brands to make maximum use of their considerable collective presence in store. It’s a classic defensive mechanism to concentrate a portfolio and makes complete sense in the light of what Coke is looking to achieve. By choosing to re-intensify its brand equity, and using its weight to its advantage, Coke clearly sees an opportunity to get maximum share, and therefore maximum bang, out of every buck.

The new approach is not without its risks. It could, for example, quickly become defensive or self-absorbed in tone if sales continue to fall. Secondly, while the decision to position Coke as a brand for everyone makes sense, Will Burns worries that it also invites the product managers to dominate the storytelling to the detriment of consumer empathy. Reviewing the campaign’s Anthem ad, he observes, “Having a snowball fight? There’s a Coke. Climbing a fence to a place you’re not supposed to be. There’s a Coke. Crowding around a smartphone with your girlfriends looking at Instagram pictures? There’s a Coke. And on and on…My issue is that no one on earth has Coke with them all the time. I’d be worried about them if they did. Nor do I currently associate Coke with any of those feelings right now. In fact, what I’m seeing in the ad are not feelings at all, but activities. As such, the product feels forced into these activities versus associated with human feelings.” But, he says, when Coke opts for human-focused storytelling, as they do with the Brotherly Love spot, they return to infusing the drink with emotion.

I’ve never seen the purpose/product debate as black and white. I feel there are dangers for brands in veering too much either way. Too much product risks losing a sense of context and the bigger picture thinking that can drive epic storytelling. There’s a danger for example, as per Burns’ point, that the commitment to a Coke world simply makes consumers overly-aware of the drink and its reach at a time when they are more and more calorie aware. As a result, they could scale back further. On the other hand, too much purpose and the product itself risks getting lost in self-righteous rhetoric and storytelling where the brand feels like a guest rather than the hero.

My own view is that CMO’s don’t earn their money from the tactics they employ or the channels they emphasize, but rather from the balances they strike based on the insights that they have. The metrics in this case couldn’t be more stark. If sales go up, the approach has worked and brand managers globally, in consumer-packaged goods and beyond, will inevitably ask themselves whether they should re-evaluate their advertising approaches in the light of Coke’s success. If it doesn’t work, that doesn’t necessarily mean a wholesale rush to purpose, but it might suggest that consumers are still looking to see more of themselves and of the world they hope for in the campaigns of major brands.

The Blake Project can help you define and develop your brand purpose.

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Mark Di Somma


  • Glenn Myatt

    January 26, 2016 at 4:13 pm

    Nicely summed up Mark. This could be a defining case study. But it does feel like the new direction is driven more by business imperatives than by customer insights. The statements made by the marketing team are more about achieving efficiency through the one brand approach and pushing immediate sales through returning to a product focus. Their referencing of old campaigns like a “Have a Coke and a smile” also doesn’t sit comfortably for a brand that was pioneering purpose before the term was even part of the marketing lexicon. As several commentators have observed, Coke’s flat-lining sales is probably due to growing consumer concerns about sugar consumption. Twiddling the marketing communications knobs isn’t about to change this.

  • Mark Di Somma

    January 27, 2016 at 12:02 pm

    I agree Glenn. It always concerns me when a marketing team references an old campaign when explaining a new direction. And while the brand equity intensification strategy is a good approach in my view, the bigger issue of consumer concern remains unresolved. On the up side, I never under-estimate Coke or the power of its brand. I think we’re all going to be watching this carefully. Thanks for your thoughts.

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