If I had a time-travelling DeLorean and could go back to 1985 and tell the Coca Cola company that their infamous marketing disaster “New Coke” would become a popular because of a streaming service … they’d probably ask what a streaming service was.
Nevertheless, here we are. It is 2019 and we are in a new post-Cola Wars era of advertising, where companies can have Twitter conversations and where the idea of a “commercial” is a thing of the past.
A recent article in Forbes stated that Millennials are far less receptive to direct advertising than previous generations, and that new and creative ways are needed to engage with them.
Sometimes you still get a direct commercial targeted at millennials … but it doesn’t often end well. Look at the Pepsi ad. With Kendall Jenner – lots of Millennial values, art, creativity, protesting … something by sharing a Pepsi. It quickly went down as one of the worst commercials ever.
Naturally, I find this all fascinating; we see companies using new technology and brand identity to better communicate our cultural values.
So why not take a further look?
WHY LOOK AT A DRINK?
It may seem odd for a blog that looks at film, television, comics, and other types of scripted media to turn its attention to a brand. But I think that Coca Cola goes deeper than just a soft drink, especially in today’s market.
More than ever,
It’s not a drink, it’s culture. It’s impacted our everyday lives, updates itself to coincide with our generational values, and uses social media to communicate directly with their many followers.
Heck, the cultural aspects are even more apparent with their tie-in marketing to Stranger Things 3; bringing back New Coke for a limited time.
So that’s why I decided to look into this. With Coca Cola recently tweeting yet another Stranger Things tie-in to their 1980s failure, we’re going to look at how a failed product became an “cultural experience.”
It’s not a drink. It’s culture.
“ROCK AND ROLLER COLA WARS!”
I haven’t tasted New Coke, and the likelihood is you haven’t either.
This was developed at the height of the Cola Wars. Pepsi had their incredibly successful “Pepsi Generation” marketing, which positioned themselves very quickly as the Gen X brand, Coca Cola had to do something to reinvent themselves.
This idea was New Coke.
For the first time in 99 years, they changed the recipe to add a fresh look to the brand … it didn’t work.
Their strategy couldn’t be faulted. In an independent taste test, more people chose New Coke over Coca Cola and Pepsi – something that regularly showed up in commercials.
If you’re interested, I’d recommend checking out The Real Coke, The Real Story, by Thomas Oliver. He details more of the consumer response to this, and how the company got thousands of angry phone calls; some of which were described as responding to the change like it had been ‘a death in the family.’
Sure, New Coke could taste phenomenal. But that’s just one aspect of a product.
Worst still, New Coke was a replacement for the Classic formula, with limiting choice never resonating with consumers.
In the end, there’s an identity to their brand, and changing the brand changes the identity of the product and a change for the consumer – especially in the mid-80s.
That’s the important thing, an identity. What is associated with a brand, and how can you associate it with something new and exciting?
This is where things get interesting. Product placement can either be done very well, feeling organic to the situation, time, place, or character. Essentially, it is where you have a brand or product show up in a film.
For example, James Bond driving around in an Aston Martin and wearing a Rolex, says something about his class, style, and adds to his “international man of mystery” aura.
Then you have something like Man of Steel where Superman has a fight between Sears, a U-Haul truck, the IHOP … and so on – just brands which add nothing to the character or story.
From a production standpoint, it’s beneficial for both the brand and the film. The film gets money from the brand, and the brand shows up in the film – simple.
But now we’re in a strange “experience” culture, where brands have transcended to more than just the product.
A recent case study can be seen in Rick and Morty and their fixation on McDonald’s limited Szechuan Sauce – a then tie-in to 1998’s Disney film Mulan.
As of this decade, we had fans demand to have the sauce come back, with McDonald’s doing a limited release to capitalise on the fan mania.
But this wasn’t something planned; just an example of fans creating a sense of community and experience from a postmodern animated sci-fi joke.
That, said, I have tried McDonald’s Szechuan Sauce and it really is amazing.
Stranger Things came at a great time for 80s nostalgia, and brands are flocking to it. Specifically catering to Gen Xers and Millennials, these tie-ins have proven very effective for evoking that emotional response.
Presently, we have Stranger Things with every company from Coca Cola to Burger King capitalising off of the Netflix 80s phenomenon in some way.
It doesn’t matter if you like or dislike the taste of New Coke, or even the retro-logo upside down burger. It’s just so 80s! It’s an 80s experience!
I think this is actually kinda brilliant. The 80s was known for direct commercialism and advertising in everything. But although that doesn’t resonate with modern consumers, doing the exact same thing branded as a retro experience does.
It’s not blatant advertising if the company is doing it ironically … I guess.
IDENTITY. COMMUNITY. EXPERIENCE.
In this day and age, I think I can boil modern advertising to these three things; Identity. Community. Experience.
With Coca Cola and Burger King tweeting out adverts related to Stranger Things, we see a convergence of media culture.
Instead of just watching a show set in 1985, it’s more immersive to also try the questionably-flavoured New Coke with an Upside-Down Whopper with retro 1980s logos.
It doesn’t necessarily add to the meaning of the narrative but builds up on all three of these points.
As a brand identity, Coca Cola has attached itself to something cool (like Stranger Things) whilst also poking fun at itself. The “in on the joke” thing has done wonders for establishing an authentic connection … regardless of how New Coke tastes.
We even got a recent Tweet from the company promoting Stranger Things with the classic Robin Beck song from the original commercials.
Similarly, there’s a community feel behind all this marketing; both generational cliques, and Stranger Things fans.
So that’s where we’re at; a drink that isn’t a drink – it’s an experience. So far, this has done wonders for the marketing of both the Netflix series and the Coca Cola company, and it never actually sells the drink.
In fact, only one of the kids in the show seems to like New Coke; with others dismissing it. It’s either a soft sell, or an anti-sell, or a brand sell – anything other than saying how great the product actually is.
Perhaps someday, forty years from now, this trend will continue.
We’ll have future kids watching a series set in 2019 that makes fun of Marvel movies, electric scooters, Space X and Donald Trump, and one of the characters will comment on the ridiculousness of that Kendall Jenner commercial; all whilst these future companies comment about their past mistakes on social media.
After all, stranger things have happened.