Coke's World Cup Song Is a Marketing Winner

Music industry executives have been making an unusual pilgrimage to Coca-Cola's (KO) Atlanta headquarters, a telling measure of the company's successful World Cup soccer marketing blitz. They want to learn how Coke turned a song called Wavin' Flag by a little-known Somali-Canadian hip-hop artist into a World Cup anthem and No. 1 iTunes hit in 17 countries in less than a year. "They are getting on planes from New York, from U.K., from Los Angeles," says Joe Belliotti, Coke's director of global entertainment. "Word of mouth is a great thing in the music industry."

Initially, Coke had hoped only to create a World Cup song good enough to entice stadiums full of soccer fans to sing along. To get there, it forged an unusual partnership with singer-songwriter K'naan and his label, A&M/Octone Records, that has ended up changing the way Coke works with entertainment companies.

The song was the musical centerpiece of Coca-Cola's largest marketing campaign ever, reaching 160 countries. A smaller effort four years ago at the World Cup in Germany helped boost volume sales of drinks in Coke's largest markets an average of 6 percent, says Emmanuel Seuge, who runs worldwide sports and entertainment marketing. Coke's goal was even higher-volume sales gains during the 2010 World Cup campaign, he says. Coke also expects gains in consumer perception scores.

Being able to tie the campaign to a song that easily crossed borders was critical. Coke had hoped the use of a single global marketing theme (it used 13 different ad campaigns in 2006) would save $45 million in costs. Seuge said Coca-Cola may have nearly doubled those savings, in large part because of the effectiveness of Wavin' Flag across cultures.

The song is a rewrite of a recording from K'naan's February 2009 album Troubadour, which sold only 89,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan. Soon after the release, Coca-Cola sent an open brief to the music industry—much like it sends to ad agencies soliciting ideas for television campaigns—spelling out what it wanted in a song.

The music had to capture the spirit of host-continent Africa and the celebratory mood in soccer stadiums. It also had to tie in Coke's year-round global marketing campaign, Open Happiness, right down to the inclusion of the recognizable five-note melody used in its ads. And Coke wanted the artist to have an uplifting backstory.

Belliotti, who then worked for a company called Brand Asset Group, brought K'naan to Coca-Cola. Brand Asset was founded by Violator Management Chief Executive Officer Chris Lighty, who represents the likes of 50 Cent and Mariah Carey.

Coke's marketers liked the singer and his multinational upbringing as well as Wavin' Flag's sweeping melody and hopeful chorus: "When I get older, I will be stronger. They'll call me freedom, just like a waving' flag." Darker verses detailing K'naan's struggle as a child in Somalia and his "fighting to eat" wouldn't work. So K'naan (full name Keinan Abdi Warsame) offered to write a version of Wavin' Flag with lyrics more befitting a soccer tournament.

K'naan and his producers added a bridge with Coke's five-note melody and pumped up the African vibe with chanting and drums. The lyrics now talked of champions taking the field and fans rejoicing in "the beautiful game." K'naan also recorded versions of the song with pop stars ranging from the Black Eyed Peas' to Japan's AI and Spain's David Bisbal, broadening its appeal.

Although financial details are confidential, Coca-Cola co-owns the rights to its Celebration Mix of Wavin' Flag along with K'naan and his record company, owned by Vivendi's Universal Music Group. Coke, which split the cost to tour K'naan around the world, is plowing the unexpected profits from the sale of Wavin' Flag downloads into its six-year, $30 million Replenish Africa Initiative, which seeks to provide clean water and better sanitation. The continent figures big in Coke's long-term growth plans, where water scarcity is an immediate problem as well as a long-term threat to the company's beverage production.

The real coup for Coke, says Seuge, is discovering a new way to tie its brand to things young consumers care about—soccer and pop music—without seeming heavy-handed. He says Coke may now expand the concept to video games and other creative works, and may even take stakes in entertainment companies themselves.

The bottom line: Coke commissioned a song for its World Cup marketing campaign, tying its brand to two obsessions of global youth: soccer and pop music.

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.