Now that the leaves have stopped turning color in Richmond, soda cans are starting to.
In Martin’s, Food Lion, Wal-Mart, Kroger and other supermarket chains, throughout the Richmond metro area and the nation, Coca-Cola cans are changing back from white to their traditional red. All because of a failed green promotion.
It all started when Coca-Cola partnered with the World Wildlife Fund in what seemed like a good idea at the time: Coke would urge customers to contribute a dollar to the WWF’s save-the-polar-bears campaign and match donations to a $3 million maximum.
Perception vs. Reality
But reports of the polar bears’ impending doom may be slightly exaggerated.
According to a 2008 US Senate Environment and Public Works Committee report:
The US Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that the polar bear population is currently at 20,000 to 25,000 bears, up from as low as 5,000-10,000 in the 1950s and 1960s. A 2002 US Geological Survey of wildlife in the Arctic Refuge Coastal Plain noted that the polar bear population “may now be at historic highs.”
And, photos of polar bears dying of exhaustion from swimming notwithstanding, a 2008 audit from the University of Pennsylvania Wharton School, the Monash Univeristy (Australia) department of Business and Economic Forecasting and the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics reported that “none of the reports [of threats to polar bear survival as a species] referred to sources of scientific forecasting methodology.”
But those are facts. WWF and its allies have effectively created perceptions that differ from them, and Coke can’t be faulted for going along with popular perceptions.
In marketing, perceptions are facts, and advertisers who waste time and effort trying to change them as part of generally educating the public do so at their peril.
To build awareness for this promotion, for the first time in its 125-year history, Coca-Cola came out with white cans (showing polar bears). They started cranking out a four-month supply — enough to last from December through March, some 1.4 billion cans in all. “We’re turning our cans white because turning our backs wasn’t an option,” went the white-can campaign’s slogan.
Coke wanted a “disruptive”campaign, said company spokesman Scott Williamson, adding that “The can has…generated a lot of interest and excitement.”
But the disruption, interest and excitement weren’t exactly the kind Coke had in mind.
Consumers seeing red
Internet comments have accused Coke of “trickery” and victimization. Consumers posted comments on the company’s official blog, telling them that their business was soda, not climate change. Others made angry phone calls. Tweets have called the white cans “blasphemy.” Others have warned that mixing up Coke and Diet Coke “is a SHOCK to the palate!”
An Atlanta deli owner reported customers returning opened white cans after realizing they weren’t drinking Diet Coke. (He had to eat the cost of the Diet Cokes he exchanged them for).
Diabetic customers complained that the white cans (see photo) looked too much like the silver Diet Coke cans, causing them to drink the sugar-packed version by mistake.
When Wisconsin 4-H delegates were flying home from a national congress, they were served regular Coke in white cans instead of the Diet Cokes they requested. “The flight attendants were really frustrated,” one of the delegates commented.
Consumers have posted YouTube videos complaining about the white cans. One features a blindfolded taste test; after sipping from a red can and a white can, a blindfolded woman pronounces the white-can Coke “the funky one!” (even though the Coke inside both was the same).
In all, there’s been so much consumer pushback that Coke is phasing in its red Christmas cans early and packaging its January and February soda in red cans. (They haven’t said what they’ll do with the 350 million white cans planned for those months.)
There are lessons for advertisers in Coke’s failure.
Learn from Coke’s mistakes
- Never forget what business you’re in. Coca-Cola is in the soda business, not the environmental or climate change or polar bear business. Maybe Coke can afford to blow $3 million in matching donations, plus the cost of 350,000 cans, plus loss of goodwill, plus the costs of creating a website page detailing the differences between the white and Diet Coke cans, presumably to print out and take with you to the suoermarket), plus the costs of (mis)conceiving and executing this campaign in the first place. But few, if any, local advertisers can.
- Never forget why consumers buy your product. People don’t buy sodas to save the polar bears or stop climate change or even to support the World Wildlife Fund. They buy Cokes because they’re thirsty and want something sweet, carbonated and caffeinated to drink. Especially in this three-year-and-counting recession, marketing charity begins at home.
- You can’t afford to educate the world, so don’t try. Here‘s why.
- Don’t spit in the soup. Make sure that whatever new product or package or promotion you roll out doesn’t cannibalize sales of your existing ones.
- Packaging affects product perception. Even though the Coke formula is the same for all its packaging, consumers perceived taste differences from one can to another. This should not have come as a surprise to Coke. In the 1950s, when introducing Tide, Procter & Gamble tested different color packaging (of the same exact detergent) on housewives. One color made them feel the detergent was so strong it was damaging their clothes. Another made them think it was too weak to get the dirt out. P&G went with the color that testing showed was just right and haven’t had cause to change it in half a century. Which brings us to our last lesson.
- If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. If your advertising and marketing are working just fine, be careful before you augment or change them. That doesn’t mean you should never consider improvements. You should, because nothing works forever. But before you roll out a new and improved campaign, promotion or package, check it out thoroughly with your consumers before taking it to market. Don’t release an improvement until you’re sure it really is one.