Storytelling 101: Coca-Cola Journey

This is a new, on-going series that will analyze the good and bad of storytelling in today’s digital world, using examples of big-brands as they switch their strategies from telling to engaging.

In late 2012, Coca-Cola took a decidedly right-turn in their approach to digital marketing. They sacked the “product/fact-based” website of yesteryears for one that was all about storytelling. The New York Times covered the launch of Coca-Cola Journeys. Below is a screenshot of the new Journey website:

The first thing that sticks out is, “where are the coke bottles?” Well, they are kind of there but couched within the theme of “health.” That’s because Coca-Cola has recognized that the way to get people emotionally attached to their brand and company isn’t to talk about themselves. It’s to develop content that makes people want to interact with their website and their videos and their campaigns. This is indicated clearly by the thematic carousel on the site. Where you might once expect to see “stories” about “Coke in the Community,” “The Health Benefits of Coke,” and “The History of Coke,” visitors are presented with articles about social media, human trafficking, running races, and rain forest conservation. What do these have to do with the Coca-Cola company? Everything. I’ll explain that in a second.

Another very interesting aspect of the site is the menu. Instead of listing anything about products, the Journey website has instead opted to feature “Stories,” “Opinions,” and “Brands.” And when you click on stories, there is more of a “Coke” feel but, again, couched within stories that are distinctly about something “not Coke.”

This is a significant and sharp departure from any CPG (consumer-packaged good) or beverage company out there. But Coca-Cola’s approach is not just embodied in their website. That is only the launching point for their revised digital marketing efforts that reflect, again, the idea that storytelling should be about characters and narrative and emotions, not the product. Below is a screenshot (click to access the video) of a recent video Coca-Cola launched. You can count the number of product placements but I think you will find yourself not doing that and, instead, watching and connecting with what happens. The psychology is simple: you connect emotionally with the story and narrative, characters in the story and narrative are using the product, you connect with the product (OMG: it’s that Transitive property from high-school Geometry!).

Okay, so let’s take stock on what Coca-Cola is doing on their website and in this video. Does it exemplify good storytelling?

  • Focus is on the character, not the product. All the people featured on the website (in their stories) and in the video, are the focus, not the product. Placement is made as part of the environment or the characters actions but it is not overt.
  • There is a narrative arc. In all of the stories, there is a beginning, middle, end. There is conflict and resolution. Take the man in the video who puts swings everywhere. What’s the conflict? People have lost their “inner child.” The resolution? Build swings everywhere. The denouement? Everyone is smiling.
  • Rich media. Coca-cola has embraced video. Not only are they publishing it on their site, but they are syndicating on YouTube.
  • Emotional. The video above, one example of the storytelling focus, is clearly emotional. There is not one storyline in that video that you can’t connect with on an emotional level. But the website features it as well. And, in other advertisements as well (most notably one about obesity in America).
  • Engagement. Leveraging the YouTube site gives Coca-Cola videos built-in engagement. But what about on their website? How about sharing buttons and in-line comments on every page?

Okay, that was the good part. But what about the rest? Where does it fail?

  • Not multi-channel. Although the Coca-Cola Journey website shows up well on mobile (meaning they have embraced responsive design), there are no apps. Nothing “different” that extends the story into a new experience by using different channels.

Coca-Cola is a poster-child for the evolution of advertising to engagement marketing and, as such, has earned themselves an A-. I would give them an A but I want to see more differentiated experiences across multiple-channels. Why not tablet and smartphone apps? Why not games? Yes, Coca-Cola does have current games across mobile platforms but unrelated to this Journey experience.

- Jason Thibeault, Sr. Director, Marketing Strategy. You can connect with Jason on Twitter @_jasonthibeault.

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