(Photo: Coca Cola/Twitter)

Coke's Attempt to Be Your BFF Pays Off Big

What seemed like a weird marketing campaign leads to a bump in sales.
Sep 30, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Jason Best is a regular contributor to TakePart who has worked for Gourmet and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Am I the only one who thought it was bizarre when cans of Coke started to appear this summer with people’s names on them? Maybe so. Turns out Coke’s season-long “Share a Coke” campaign was such a hit, it reversed an 11-year downward trend in sales of the supersweet soda.

For the first time in more than a decade, sales of Coke’s carbonated drinks rose, gaining 2.5 percent for the 12 weeks ending in August—just as Coke’s seasonal marketing campaign came to an end. The simple idea was to feature 250 of the most popular first names among teens and millennials plastered across cans and bottles of Coke, Diet Coke, and Coke Zero—in addition to such feel-good, totally generic words as “Friend,” “BFF,” “Bestie,” and “Buddy.”

Admittedly, I got a bit suckered into the whole thing myself when I spotted the name of an old friend of mine emblazoned on a Coke in the supermarket checkout line. We’d been trying to make plans for weeks, and so I snapped a picture of it and texted her: “It’s a sign we should get together next weekend.” (Coke, of course, would be disappointed that I didn’t buy the bottle to give to her.)

“Yeah, that whole Coke thing is weird,” she later told me. The law office where she works regularly stocks cases of Diet Coke. “We’re all walking around with cans with other people’s names on them.”

Yet somehow the sheer absurdity of this oxymoronic corporate attempt to mass-market personalization—whereby dads spent the summer grilling while unwittingly gripping cans of Coke labeled “Alyssa” or “Jenna,” or grandmothers quenched their pool-time thirst with Diet Cokes marked “Oscar”—seemed lost on the American public. Also unremarked, it seemed, was that Coke’s “genius” multimillion-dollar campaign was nothing new. It's essentially the same ploy used by hawkers of cheap souvenirs at boardwalks and amusement parks since tourism began—all those key chains and mini license plates your eight-year-old just has to have because her name is on it.

Instead, Coke appears to have scored a major marketing coup, particularly among the coveted demographic of millennials. “To see your name on a big brand, it makes it personal,” 22-year-old Ricardo El Torro tells The Wall Street Journal. Twentysomethings Alyssa and Shane Lescalleet of Lancaster, Ohio, plan to keep the bottles they found with their names on them displayed in their living room, next to their wedding pictures.

All this would amount to no more than an eye-rolling attempt by a major American brand to channel the telegraphic ethos of the rising text-and-Twitter generation were it not for the fact that Coke’s marketing strategy only thinly veils some rather insidious designs.

Coke has long been a master at investing its fizzy, nutritionally vapid products with all manner of touchy-feely sentiment—from the tearjerking “America the Beautiful” ad last winter all the way back to “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing.” By plastering its products with a bevy of carefully vetted, demographically targeted first names, Coke hopes the next generation will come to connect “Coke” with “friend” and not, say, diabetes.

Sure, Coke’s overall sales have been on a consistent downward slide, no doubt owing at least in part to increased public awareness of just how unhealthy soda is. But public health advocates still have had a hard time convincing people that a product that does nothing to fill you up could possibly be one of the primary culprits behind America’s obesity epidemic and its attendant health ills.

So let's do some simple math. A standard fast-food medium soda is about 21 ounces. Fill it with Coke, and that’s 240 calories and 65 grams of sugar—the same number of calories and more than three times the sugar of a Krispy Kreme chocolate-iced glazed doughnut. Face it, self-service free refills mean that most people go back to fill ’er up again. So now you’re guzzling 130 grams of sugar, which is equivalent to 32 teaspoons.

Because excess sugar consumption has been linked to weight gain and heart disease (not to mention diabetes and certain cancers), the American Heart Association recommends adults consume no more than 9.5 teaspoons of added sugar every day. For its part, the World Health Organization has recently proposed dropping its recommended daily allowance to no more than six teaspoons.

That’s the kind of information our “besties” over at Coke prefer to keep secret.