Coca-Cola PR Magic: How to Stay on Top for Over a 100 Years

It’s hard to believe that Coca-Cola started life as a medicinal tonic. Selling for five cents a glass, it sold just nine glasses a day. It’s even harder to believe that today, we enjoy 1.9 billion servings of Coca-Cola drinks every day around the world. That’s over twice the population of Europe.

But Coke doesn’t just have impressive sales numbers. It also has one of the best corporate reputations in the world. They’ve hit the #1 most-reputable spot on Nielsen surveys with incredible consistency: in 2014, they nabbed the top spot for the fifteenth year in a row.

Coca Cola advertising

And how about influence? Well, in 2011, the company celebrated its 125th year in business with a short history of the brand. On the second page, they casually dropped this bombshell: ‘it is documented that ‘Coca-Cola’ is the second-most widely understood term in the world, after ‘okay.’

That’s a pretty impressive boast, and it’s all down to Coca-Cola’s PR prowess.

Here are six reasons how Coke have used PR to stay on top for so long — and how you can too.

1. They rock at internal PR

Coca Cola memorabilia

With public relations, it’s easy to get tunnel-vision. If you focus too hard on wowing the public, you might forget one of your most important audiences: your employees.

It’s a simple fact: happy staff make great brand ambassadors. One study from the Harvard Business Review found that keeping your staff engaged and in high spirits can increase sales by nearly 40%.

On the flipside, if employees aren’t motivated by your company’s mission (or they’re not sure what it is), how can you expect them to inspire customers? In fact, they might not show up at all. According to a 2016 Cone Communications study, for example, three quarters of millennials would seriously consider a company’s values and workplace culture before applying for a job.

So, how does Coca-Cola ensure that employees show up?

When it comes to internal public relations, Coca-Cola’s most interesting strategy is their Employee Groups.

These volunteer-led groups enable employees to group together based on shared backgrounds or interests to discuss programmes, initiatives, recruitment and other real-world business matters. This includes groups for Asian-Americans, LGBTQ+ employees and even military veterans.

It’s easy for employees to feel like they’re just cogs in a faceless corporate machine. But Coke doesn’t ask people to leave their identities at the door. It shows them that everyone is valued and unique.

Because Coke’s Employee Groups are run by volunteers, they’re cost-effective, and a simple way to get people motivated, while also letting historically underserved groups fight for better representation.

Internal public relations is one of the most powerful tools you have for improving staff morale. Find out why here: What is Internal Communication in Public Relations?

2. They keep things personal

Coca Cola bottle

If employees hate being treated like cogs in a machine, customers loathe it. That’s why we’ve seen a boom in customisable products from both start-ups and big brands. But Coke was a trailblazer here: just look at their wildly successful Share a Coke campaign, which started in the early 2010s.

With the Share a Coke campaign, Coca-Cola distributed hundreds of unique Coke cans and bottles with the classic logo replaced with common first names. People could give a drink to a friend or family member with the same name or pick one up with their own name on it.

Coca Cola personalised bottle

The campaign was great for a lot of reasons. On a simple level, ‘share a Coke’ is a wonderfully direct call-to-action.

Sharing on social

But the real genius of Coca-Cola’s public relations campaign was how it got people talking on social media.

We identify with our names more strongly than anything else. So, it’s only natural that, when people saw a Coke bottle with their name on it, they wanted to post it online. As a result, the campaign was massively popular and got over 18 million media impressions in its first year.

Customisation inherently gets customers actively engaging with your brand, rather than passively consuming adverts. That’s a key step in turning people from customers into brand ambassadors.

Coke even managed to turn the campaign’s main failing into another success. The obvious downside to printing labels with people’s names on them is you can only ever produce so many. But Coke, cleverly, let people order their own customised bottles online.

3. They’re not afraid to get political

Coca Cola truck

The world gets more political by the day, and customers don’t trust companies that think they can get by with sitting on the fence. A full 66% of millennials think companies should take a stand on important social issues. The Entrepreneur summed it up in not so many words: brands that aren’t socially-conscious won’t survive the 2020s.

Social responsibility isn’t some PR checkbox you have to tick off, though. It’s also a valuable opportunity for reaching the public in innovative ways.

The classic example, of course, is Nike’s racially charged Dream Crazy campaign with Colin Kaepernick. Most people would’ve called it PR suicide, but it ended up being the company’s most successful campaign in years. Read more: Just Do It: How Nike Does Public Relations.

This type of marketing is known as cause marketing. Wikipedia describes it as: ‘marketing done by a for-profit business that seeks to both increase profits and to better society in accordance with corporate social responsibility, such as by including activist messages in advertising.’ Read more: The Benefits of Cause Related Marketing.

Keeping it real

The most important thing to consider with cause marketing is authenticity. Consumers can easily smell a fake: just look at the uproar Pepsi got for their awful Black Lives Matter ad with Kendell Jenner in 2017. In comparison, Coca-Cola’s public relations strategy was far superior. Rather than an ad, poster or any kind of visual campaign, which are too easy to stuff up on a sensitive topic like this, they instead released a sober statement decrying racism: ‘Reality is that there is still a wound in the fabric of America that is not just not healed – but is being reopened. Racism. It begets violence, it begets death.’

Nobody can accuse that of sounding insincere.

More important than words, of course, is action. And Coke didn’t let themselves down. The company invested over $2.5 million into organisations fighting for racial justice, like the NAACP and the National Center for Civil and Human Rights.

Taking a stand on social issues like this doesn’t just endear your brand to the up-and-coming progressive generation. It also gives your company a higher purpose. Remember that stat about employees wanting to work for places with strong values? Well, having a clear political agenda is a great way to put some heft behind your corporate values.

4. They use PR stunts to grab your attention

Coca Cola tram

PR stunts can easily come off as cheesy or just plain annoying. When the International House of Pancakes flipped one letter in its logo to announce it was now selling burgers, the idea felt tired twenty seconds after it started. In any case, they flipped it back within weeks.

But we shouldn’t judge PR stunts by the worst of the lot. A well-designed stunt has always been a great way to get people to pay attention to your brand. And thankfully, we have Coke to show us how it’s done.

Coca Cola meets James Bond

Coca Cola meets James Bond

One of the most impressive Coca-Cola PR stunts was the company’s team-up with MGM and Columbia Pictures in 2015, to promote the latest Bond film, Skyfall. The campaign, called ‘Unlock the 007 in you’ challenged unwitting train passengers at Antwerp Central station in Belgium to become James Bond for 70 seconds. As they ordered a Coke from a vending machine, they were given the opportunity to win free tickets to see Skyfall.

After entering their name, they were given 70 seconds to make their way to Platform 6, avoiding a number of hilarious obstacles along the way, from dog-walkers, to falling luggage. The classic Bond theme tune played through it all.

This Coca-Cola PR campaign was a huge hit, racking up tens of thousands of views online.

Here’s what made it work:

  • It kept Coke in step with one of the most popular film franchises of recent years
  • It’s just funny to watch people trip over themselves running through a train station
  • It transformed a mundane visit to a vending machine into a mini-adventure

You shouldn’t restrict yourself to partnerships with brands in the same industry, or to only using this or that kind of marketing. If an idea seems out-there to you, it’ll feel the same way to the public. The only limit is your imagination, and your budget, of course.

5. They’ve mastered heritage marketing

Coca Cola vintage bottles

Many brands sell themselves on novelty. In the UK, for example, the craft soda scene has seen a surge of activity with brands like Black Castle, Dalston’s and Soda Folk. Thanks to their novelty value and indie status, they represent an alternative to the big drink brands.

Coke can’t fight back by pretending to be new or indie, so it doesn’t try. Instead, Coca-Cola’s PR campaigns use heritage marketing to highlight the fact it’s a long-standing and well-established brand.

Okay, but what is heritage marketing?

Heritage marketing is all about selling your brand on its history. Any time you see a company’s logo boast that it was established in the 1880s or the 1740s, that’s heritage marketing. An example is Bacardi’s 2014 ad, Untameable. It lays out various hardships the brand has endured — fires, earthquakes, prohibition — to demonstrate its ‘irrepressible spirit’. Bacardi is no longer just a company, but an underdog who’s triumphed against adversity.

Heritage marketing can also be more abstract. Cardiff bar ‘The Dead Canary’, for instance, played up their Welsh heritage in 2017 with a cocktail menu inspired by the Mabinogion, a famous Medieval book of Welsh tales.

Similarly, physical design can speak volumes without saying a word. Consider the glass Coke bottle. In a world of sleek, smooth surfaces, the iconic shape immediately reminds us of a far-off past. They’ve become a classic piece of Americana, like hamburgers or blue jeans. No wonder Andy Warhol was fascinated by them.

Andy Warhol's Coca-Cola Art

You can be even more subtle than that though. Nowadays, Coke cans have a sleek, modern design, but they still use the same flowery typography from the 1880s. Not all of Coca-Cola’s public relations campaigns use heritage marketing, but the visual design of their products gives the brand a nostalgic depth that new, indie drinks don’t have. In essence, heritage marketing turns your brand’s history into a story consumers can connect with. Read more on brand storytelling here: The Power of PR Storytelling

6. They diversify their brands well

Coca Cola plus coffee

Coke is a giant of the drink’s world. But when giants fall, they fall hard. A common way for big brands to fail is through a lack of diversification.

A classic example is Kodak. Back in the day, they were the undisputed champions of photography. But because they invested so heavily in film development techniques, which had served them well in the past, they were completely caught out by the shift to digital photography. Kodak still exists, but it’s now a shell of its former self.

The lesson is simple: don’t put all your eggs in one basket.

Something similar could happen to Coke. Consider the rising scepticism over sugary drinks. With their proclivities for matcha tea and kale juice, Gen-Z and millennials are turning away from fizzy drinks in droves. The medical establishment is even calling for an outright ban on advertising them to kids.

That’s why Coke invested heavily in healthier drinks such as:

As you can see from these examples, brand diversification isn’t just about survival. It’s also fantastic public relations: Coca Cola can appeal to new markets, like bodybuilders and gym rats with Powerade. It can even open up new opportunities for philanthropic PR stunts: on several occasions, Coke’s donated Dasani to water-starved communities.

More brands isn’t the solution to all of life’s problems. But bringing in smaller brands to support your top-hitter insulates you from risk and also lets you target niche audiences.

Coke is the biggest brand in the world, and that’s not likely to change any time soon.

Want to join the PR revolution? Call me now on +44 (0)77604 70309

I get you into the places that matter

The Times
Financial Times
Evening Standard