Coca Cola has a new campaign for 2021, plastered all over the cans, as well as everywhere else. The brand name itself has moved off the back to make room for people’s empowering slogans, new year’s resolutions, and general platitudes. It’s called Open to Better, and it’s billed as their “campaign for hope and optimism in 2021”. On-pack messages include:  

“I will take a break like never before”  

What better time for us to be brave than now?” 

“I promise to be better just for you.” 

I like Coca Cola. Consumed in moderation, it’s a relatively benign treat. Years of advertising about how Coke is it, et al, have created a fuzzy association in my mind between Coke and being happy. So when I pour it, I get a teensy subliminal rush of joy. It takes a long time for a brand to build that kind of response, especially a brand that doesn’t really do anything much, functionally. Hats off to the Coca Cola Company for that. It’s an achievement any brand manager would envy. 

So whdissociate the feelgood from the brand, and turn it into some sort of personal self-improvement drive? I feel like I’m being admonished to do better. Maybe it’s meant to inspire. But I don’t look to Coke for inspiration.  

Brand purpose is a useful concept but it can lead to mission creep. These days, it can seem as if fizzy drinks and smoothies aren’t here to be enjoyed. They’re here to transform our lives and improve the world. And, in this case, to propose that we improve ourselves. 

According to the senior vice-president of marketing for Europe, Middle East and Africa, they’ve decided that “empathy should be the ‘lighthouse’ guiding Coke’s actions going forward”. Empathy would be understanding that little moments of pleasure mean more than usual in the current climate. And letting us savour them. 

Just like the people claiming to have written a book/ learned a language/ redecorated their house in lockdown one, this latest salvo from Coke is best ignored. Brands should give a benefit, not make demands of its consumers. Alanis Morrisette might have something to say about that. Have a cup of tea and a chocolate digestive instead.  

The truth is that this is an extraordinary brand. Coca Cola has built global recognition, reputation, and positive associations, through consistent upbeat communications through thick and thin. It’s no coincidence that Santa Claus wears Coca Cola red. Somehow this explicit call to action is breaking the spell. Businesses are expected to operate responsibly, but that needn’t extend to sanctimony. Thing is, Coke can cheer me up just by being Coke. Have they forgotten that?  

Comment | February 2021