Blinded by the light?


When we change [advertising] campaigns and have 11 different looks to a brand at any one time, we’re swimming upstream.

Charles B. Fruit
Senior Vice President and chief marketing officer of The Coca-Cola Company

When you enter the Coca-Cola headquarters in Atlanta, it’s hard not to be impressed. You pass through immense gates, and see, first, a sculpture above a reflecting pool. Water pours over the lip of the pool steadily, continuously, inexorably, a symbol both of all the Coke presently in motion on the planet, and all the wealth that comes from it.

Inside the building, the foyer is a two story oval, done in buttery marble, with The Coca-Cola Company written in Spenserian script on the wall. You stop for a moment and goggle at what the sculptor has done: inserting a running font into a curving wall. Perfectly. The message here: Ain’t nothing to it.

Inside the offices of this vast complex, you see the art of Nast, Sundblom, and Rockwell, early architects of the Coke brand. Apparently, these commercial artists could do anything, too. What they did for Coke was to help make it stand for something utterly, foundationally American. They made Coke and America mutually presupposing.

But something happened to America. It went from a couple of ideas of Americanness to many ideas of Americanness. This may be hard to see from the genteel surroundings of Atlanta headquarters and from the pleasant residential world of Buckhead, but you only had to look at the CSD (carbonated soft drink) “category.”

It stopped being a category. Suddenly, there were new age drinks (Snapple), energy drinks (Red Bull), nutritional drinks (7 Up Plus), lots of little start ups working every niche, and some very scrappy competitors (Pepsi). Not one America, but many Americas. And in this new choice set, Coke began to look too sweet, too caffeinated, too fattening, a little unhealthy, and, gasp, a little old fashioned.

But it’s hard to say goodbye. The Coke idea, monolithic, magnificent, majestic, is a compelling one. And it is presently written into all the surfaces of the corporate culture. The culture “out there” may be splintering into thousands of pieces. But inside the marble palace, things are still. When they move, they pour. This is a problem.

How do you get thousands of employees suddenly to change their most basic assumptions about their company? After all, the beliefs and attitudes that make up a culture filter into everything else: decisions on basic strategy, management style, staffing, performance expectations, product development. That’s why the problems at Coke have proven so intractable.

There are lots of technical reasons why it is hard for a corporation to move from mass marketing to micro marketing. Chiefly, mass is a volume game. How do you move to micro and sustain your numbers?

But there is another, cultural reason for the difficulty. It is that the Coca-Cola Company is the captive of its own success. It is blinded by its brand. The brand works most effectively where it proves to be most dangerous, stultifying, and confining: in Atlanta, at Coke headquarters.

So when Chuck Fruit complains that aggressive marketing can leave the brand with 11 looks at one time, we must ask, “and that’s a bad thing how?” There are at least 11 Americas. Maybe it’s time to turn the flag ship brand into the flotilla it needs to be.


Foust, Dean. 2004. Gone Flat. BusinessWeek. December 20, 2004, pp. 77-82.
[source of both quotes]

Terhune, Chad. 2004. Healthy Bubbles? Soda Companies Juice Up Drinks. Wall Street Journal. December 14, 2004, pp. B1, B4.


Tom Guarriello for a recent discussion on brands and corporate cultures.

5 thoughts on “Blinded by the light?

  1. Brock

    A corporate blog that thinks the new think.

    My opinions, worldview, and “thought process” have been expanded and sharpened beyond that I thought was possible since I started challenging myself with the thoughts of really smart people on a day-to-day basis.

    Coke, and other large companies, can leverage the power of blogs to expose their entire workforce to the thoughts of the few “drivers”, “synthesists”, or whatever you want to call those really smart people who create new paradigms. I don’t think every human has it in him to be one of the “creators of new paradigms”, but constant, regular exposure should allow most people to follow.

  2. Tom Guarriello

    Brock’s point about the transformative power of connectivity holds the key for me. But, you’ll remember the point Tom Barnett made at PopTech, Grant: connectivity implies openness to the content that comes across “the wire.” That means the Coke culture would need to develop the permeability (and then some) that would permit it to listen, understand, learn from, and use the things being said by others.

    Blogs are wonderful at exposing all of us to ideas; it’s up to each of us to “get” them.

    I’m afraid Grant’s comments about Coke being “blinded by the brand” might be all too true. We know it’s extraordinarily difficult to change patterns that have yielded successful outcomes in the past, even if they no longer do so.

  3. steve

    I thinik Coke has traditionally seen its brand as being multifaceted–thirst-quenching, good with a meal, a piece of Americana, etc. And they’ve launched a bevy of mini-brands–Vanilla Coke, Cherry Coke, C2, etc–in the last few years.

    But it’s not clear how far such fragmentation can go without completely dissipating the emotional connection users have with the brand. We are traditionalists and like Coke largely because of its comforting familiarity (remember New Coke?).

    Maybe a brand like Coke should be like a public-meaning utility, providing a consistent and homogeneous image which consumers can fit in varying ways into their own stories. After all, we don’t expect the electric company to provide us with different electricity or Google to provide us with different search engines. We expect to use these homogeneous products in heterogeneous ways; it is precisely their lowest-common-denominator generic quality that makes them broadly useful.

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