Targeting the reindeer market.

Photographer: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

What #Shareacoke Reveals About Advertising

Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a professor of law at Yale University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. His novels include “The Emperor of Ocean Park” and “Back Channel,” and his nonfiction includes “Civility” and “Integrity.”
Read More.
a | A

My wife and I like to think of ourselves as rational consumers. We read product reviews, compare prices and study ingredient labels. We search out the science behind every slogan. We ignore most advertising. We happily forgo big brands when others meet our standards. We don't rush out to buy the latest thing. Our car is nine years old because it runs fine and we don't need all the digital toys adorning the new ones. So we were probably the most surprised people in the U.S. when the #shareacoke campaign reeled us in.

And, oh how it caught us. Big time.

While out running errands, we darted into in a shop in West Hartford, Connecticut, for flatbread sandwiches -- vegetarian for my wife, grilled chicken for me -- and when I reached into the drinks cabinet at the end of the aisle for a bottle of water, my eye was drawn to a bottle of Coca-Cola with our daughter's name on it.

But wait. Right beside that bottle was another -- with our son's name on it.

We were stunned. And hooked. The rational parts of our brains shut down. We don't drink Coca-Cola, and our shopping habits aren't generally characterized by what economists call present-biased preferences, but when we saw our children's names, side by side, they seemed to call to us. Impulse control vanished. Overwhelmed by sentiment, we simply had to have those bottles. Our only bit of luck was that the retailer didn't adjust price to mood and charge us a significant premium -- which, in our mutual momentary madness, we might well have paid.

By most measures, the #shareacoke campaign has been wildly successful. It has generated all the buzz a company would want: a quarter of a million tweets and close to 1 billion impressions on Twitter. But important cautions lurk behind this evident triumph.

The strategy is the brainchild of Ogilvy, which launched the effort in Australia in 2011 in an effort to boost sales to the young by replacing the Coke logo with first names. The idea has since been introduced around the world. For last summer's U.S. rollout, the company slapped the 250 most popular first names among millennials on bottles and cans of Coke and Diet Coke. The number is now up to 1,000, and growing.

Can't find the one you want in stores? There's a good chance that a bottle with the name you're looking for is available on eBay. No dice? Not to worry. Coca-Cola will personalize a bottle for you.

So successful has the campaign been that there is even #shareacoke dupery. Take the much-circulated image purporting to show Coke bottles lined up on a store shelf in the precise order of the female names in Lou Bega's popular if misogynist 1999 song "Mambo No. 5." Turned out to be a hoax. Then there was last year's much-repeated story that bottles bearing the name "Michael" were being recalled because an employee with a grudge against a supervisor of that name had intentionally contaminated them. That turned out to come from a spoof article. Okay, no company wants false information about its products out there. But such viral tales as these, even if actually mis-tales, surely generate lots of free buzz.

The campaign has also generated plenty of what is known as user-generated content. Dip into the #shareacoke hashtag on Twitter, and you'll find multiple posts that run like this: "Don't like Coke but @Algernon I had to share this pic" -- a photo of a Diet Coke bottle with "Algernon" emblazoned on it.

You can't buy that kind of publicity. Oh, wait. You can. Coca-Cola is paying for promoted tweets that address users by name. ("Hey, Algernon! #shareacoke is back!")

But has all the twittering made an impression on the bottom line? Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe that's not even the point.

When I used to teach advertising law, I would remind my students that although there are plenty of competing theories about how ads work -- some economic, some psychological, some both -- it's generally agreed that the effects of better campaigns tend to be long-term and cumulative, rather than short-term and immediate.

This is where Coke's challenges arise. Even if fans are tweeting like mad, recent work suggests that user-generated ads have little effect on the preferences of borderline customers, and even arouse their skepticism. True, this effect seems to be lessened when the audience thinks the consumers who created the messages are people much like themselves. But with younger consumers so fickle, the ability to turn marketing into magic will depend on part on whether the rising generation actually tries the product and likes the taste.

Second, once the novelty wears off, consumers might decide there's something off-putting about products bearing their names. They might strike them as precursors to the creepy smart ads in "Minority Report" that address those in the vicinity by name.

Finally, sentiment has its limits. Advertising that appeals to the emotions is the Holy Grail of marketing, but the appeal is hard to sustain. Yes, my wife and I were moved to buy the bottles we would otherwise have bypassed. But we didn't try the product. We dumped the soda and plan to fill the bottles with sand. In other words, the campaign won't convert us to long-term customers.

You might object that #shareacoke isn't aimed at our generation. Fair point. But when we offered the bottles to our children, they responded with indifference. That's Coke's real challenge in this world of declining brand loyalties and rapidly changing taste: Maybe all those millennials trading images on Instagram and Twitter are just taking pictures.

  1. For those not familiar with the argot, here's a useful definition: "When we say 'impression', we mean that a tweet has been delivered to the Twitter stream of a particular account."(This is actually clearer than Twitter's own shorter explanation: "Times a user is served a Tweet in timeline or search results.")

  2. In China, the labels are adorned with not personal names but quotes from popular movies. Coke previously tested popular online nicknames and music lyrics. In the case of the lyrics, the consumer could scan a bottle with a smartphone and play the music. Coke evidently considered a similar setup for its bottles featuring lines from movies, but purchasing the rights to scenes from the many films involved was too daunting an expense.

  3. Whatever "likes the taste" may mean in the cola industry.

  4. Although the movie's creepy ads seem to be our future anyway.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author on this story:
Stephen L Carter at scarter01@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Tracy Walsh at twalsh67@bloomberg.net