Coke’s Honesty Campaign And What it Means for Marketers

by Mark Ivey |

Clearly, Coke scored a winner with its brilliant social experiment in Portugal last month.

The backdrop was a popular soccer match between two top teams in Lisbon. With tickets expensive and scarce, Coke planted a wallet in a bustling shopping center. Inside was $200 and a ticket to the soccer event. Then it sent in a camera crew team to tape the reactions of people in the street.

Portugal must be a haven for honesty. Amazingly, 95% of the people who found the wallet and the valuable goodies turned it in. These Good Samaritans seemingly did this because it was the right thing to do, not for financial reward. But Coke surprised them by giving them a ticket to the soccer game and putting them up in their own special sections. They were even honored at halftime on the stadium’s big screen.

This was a brilliant campaign on several fronts, and there’s a slew of lessons for social marketers.

  • It put the spotlight on people, not the brand. How many of us have fought this battle-trying to get companies to quit thinking about their products and start thinking about their customers, and larger audiences? Coke put a huge spotlight on the Good Samaritans, so we end up falling in love with these people and the principles they represent. Of course the positive emotional reaction spills over to the brand.
  • It created a human story, a narrative: The story highlighted human “goodness” and concludes that ultimately people who act on principles are rewarded. I think people are desperate for human stories that transcend the everyday drum beat of negative news to showcase positive principals. It reinforces the feeling that there are good people out there, and that the human community we’re all part of isn’t really that bad (“There’s reasons to believe in a better world”) . See how Coke embellished this and brought it to a new level in their video.
  • It was natural: Coke could have paid people to do good deeds, or held talent contests , mimicking American Idol (yawn). This wasn’t another “reality” TV fake-out. The expressions, reactions, and the way these people responded felt very real because it was real.

Coke has been building this feel-good brand for decades, and the Portugal wallet-drop fits right in. Back in the 1930s, urban legends had it that Coke actually invented Santa Claus because of the jovial, white-bearded character appearing  in its advertising (wearing Coke’s trademark red and white colors).

Then in the early 1970s, there was Coke’s world music commercial — it portrayed a positive message of hope and love sung by a multicultural collection of teenagers on the top of a hill. It struck a human chord-who could resist humming that tune-and became famous (now it would be viral).

Now we’ve evolved to this: the world’s most powerful brand turning the camera on real people, testing them in a clever experiment. They passed with glowing colors and Coke gets a nice boost of online traffic to its YouTube site and widespread media.

It’s easy to poke holes in this experiment, and there’s little scientific about it (how big is their sample, what if they’d planted the wallet in a dark alley,etc). And yes, when you strip off the cover, this is still about shrewd marketing.

There are lessons for marketers.  Keep it simple. Focus on your audience and human stories. Think out of box. And move beyond your existing social networks  to the real world. We’ve been focusing for years on the “media” side of the social media equation. As Coke has shown, the human and social side is still alive and well. It’s the real thing.

About the Author

Mark Ivey

Mark Ivey is a social media consultant with the ION Group and a published author with a broad corporate background in editorial, marketing, social media and executive communications. He’s served as a Bureau Chief at BusinessWeek magazine, national media spokesman for Intel, and recently, as Editor in Chief for Hewlett Packard, where he pioneered a new program to drive its enterprise blogs and other social media activities. Besides family, friends and good wine, his passion is social media-training, strategizing, and exploring new digital paths for his clients. Find him on Twitter at @markivey.