Taste the mixed feelings

Coca-Cola’s new global tagline ‘Taste the Feeling’ ticks all the boxes of a vacuous, formulaic, 21st-century brand line, writes Nick Asbury. But it’s attached to a smart strategy and looks like being the cornerstone of a great campaign. That should give copywriters a queasy feeling.

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The line
First of all, there’s the line itself. It’s not a great line. No one could look at ‘Taste the Feeling’ and think it’s a great line. It doesn’t make sense in the way words normally try to make sense. It doesn’t have any aesthetic appeal – no memorable rhythm or something to make it lodge in the mind. Worst of all, it’s generic. There’s already a long-standing trend for brands issuing three-word instructions that make no sense.

In retrospect, Sky’s ‘Believe in better’ is relatively grounded – you can almost believe in the idea of continual improvement. But more recently we’ve had ‘Enjoy the Go’ by Charmin and ‘Be Your Way’ by Burger King – lines so abstract they resemble conceptual works of art.

Rather than being ‘written’, they seem to have been created using a corporate version of the William Burroughs cut-up technique (favoured by songwriters from David Bowie to Kurt Cobain). Simply slice up your strategy presentation, scatter the words across the floor, then combine randomly.

The strategy
The thing is, the strategy behind ‘Taste the Feeling’ is pretty great. Reading some of the press comments from new global Chief Marketing Officer Marcos de Quinto, I found myself mentally applauding at every turn.

In an interview with Ad Age, de Quinto talks about a one-brand approach, where every marketing dollar promotes a unified Coca-Cola brand, instead of pushing lots of competing sub-brands. Makes complete sense.

Make-it-Happy

Then he talks about the previous ‘Open Happiness’ campaign, which took on big societal issues like online bullying – the subject of the 2015 Super Bowl ad (above). While not disowning the campaign, he believes Coke has “started to talk in a preachy way to people. And Coca-Cola has always been a simple pleasure.” Yes.

And he goes on to say that, “The bigness of Coca-Cola resides in this humbleness, in its simplicity.” But the “more that we tried … to preach to the people, the smaller we made it.” Finally: “We have been just talking about the brand, but talking very little about the product.”

This is brilliant. In a groupthink climate where every brand has been straining to cast itself as a saintly hero tackling society’s biggest problems, here we have the CMO of one of the world’s biggest brands talking about weird concepts like humility and not being preachy. Building the brand by focusing on the product.

It’s also a shrewd recognition of Coca-Cola’s biggest asset – the iconic simplicity of a brand that has been built through decades of sheer focus. Design company Turner Duckworth recognised this in their single-minded packaging work for Coca-Cola back in 2009, stripping everything back to leave the raw iconography of its red and whiteness, elegantly scripted logotype and distinctive bottle shape (below). That thinking has had a lasting effect at Coca-Cola.

td-coke-hero-new

The campaign
So that’s the strategy, but what about the campaign? Well, that’s interesting too. There are six 60-second TV spots, with ‘Anthem’ as the lead. And there’s a whole ream of print work. None of it is ground-breaking on its own, and all of it has that big American quality to it, including the cheesy pop anthem (in which Conrad Sewell sings something about watching the waves and having a Coke). But that’s what we want from Coke.

And when you look at it as a set, it’s incredibly disciplined. The product is in every shot. At one point, a teardrop is expressed by a trickle running down the bottle. Product plus emotion. There’s a sense of a brand finding its confidence again. You can see it’s a single idea that lends itself to many executions.

(Inevitably, the press release makes much of the ‘personalisation’ aspect, where people are invited to create their own gifs – via tastethefeeling.coca-cola.com – expressing how Coca-Cola makes them feel, or something along those lines. I find it hard to be interested in that part.)

LiketoTeach-ad

All of it reminds me of the spirit of Coca-Cola in its better times. It’s not quite ‘I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing’ (the 1971 spectacular, above, which the Mad Men writers later hinted may have been written by Don Draper). But it has that quality of being about something bigger than itself, precisely because it’s not trying to be about something bigger than itself. At its best, Coca-Cola has always been linked to the best parts of the American dream – optimistic, naïve, consumerist, happy. But it does it by showing the product.

Of course, none of this will necessarily make people love the product again. Coca-Cola has an existential problem with changing attitudes to health. But it could make people love the brand again, and that buys you permission to evolve and think about where to go next.

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The conclusion
So back to the line. If it’s the cornerstone of a great campaign and a smart strategy, does that mean ‘Taste the Feeling’ is actually a brilliant line in disguise?

Well, not really. For copywriters in particular, it’s a shame all of this couldn’t have been achieved with a better line – something as original and powerful as the thinking behind it.

But the troubling thought is that it may not matter. Maybe the campaign will work better by not having a better line. Slogans are different things these days. They have become brand lines more than advertising lines. The classic advertising line used to act as a focal point for an idea – a hook for everything to hang on. It had to be clever and memorable – that was its job.

The brand line consciously avoids being a focal point. It’s more like a flag flying over a big, abstract territory. And writing that kind of slogan is like arranging big symbols on a flag – designed to be discernable from a mile away in a strong wind. It doesn’t make for great verbal artistry, but maybe that’s the way slogans have to be now.

Or maybe it’s just a bad line. We live in hope.

One last thought – a company in California recently advertised a writing position by asking for a ‘Language designer’. It sounds like a joke, but it could be the logical next step in a trend where copy has been morphing into design, with concepts like verbal identity and tone of voice guidelines – both consciously mirroring the way design presents itself. Something about ‘Taste the Feeling’ feels closer to language design than copywriting to me. I’ve an uncomfortable feeling it may catch on.

Nick Asbury is a writer for branding and design and one-half of creative partnership, Asbury & Asbury. He tweets via @asburyandasbury. The new Coca-Cola campaign features over 100 images shot by fashion photographers Guy Aroch and Nacho Ricci that will be used in print ads, billboards, in-store and digital media. More at coca-colacompany.com/tastethefeeling.

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  • BrendaKilgour

    But … but … the advertising and design cognoscenti fell all over themselves throwing awards for “engagement” etc at the previous campaign. In fact I believe Coke was “Client of the Year” at Cannes a couple of years back. Considering that Coke sales are cratering throughout the developed world, the renewed focus on the product is no great revelation. But they can force a bottle into every frame of a TV spot and it won’t fix Coca-Cola’s basic issue, which is that people are moving away from their unhealthy products. Where is the R&D innovation? Where is “Coke Organic?” They are still paralyzed by the 1985 “New Coke” debacle. Sad, because people still love the brand. Just not what’s behind it.

  • Matt Duxbury

    Really interesting read Nick. Just to expand on your thinking about the ‘brand line’ versus advertising line – I wonder if social media and the #hashtag has anything to do with it? Just occurred to me because straight after reading this piece I visited Facebook and saw a sponsored ad (video) with #TasteTheFeeling. I’m not sure if this supports your idea of a line that must do a job but avoid becoming a focal point, because it has to appear across different media and keep many different bases covered as it were? fascinating stuff anyway

  • Martin Lee

    Very good as ever Nick. Thank you. But I wonder if sometimes the story with slogans / brand lines is that it’s the familiarity over time, and a brand’s willingness to stay the course that brings first a grudging acceptance, and then ultimately a sense of ‘hey that was great’ which wasn’t available to us on day one? You almost hint at that yourself by talking about ‘believe in better’ looking good ‘in retrospect’. Would we have thought that Just do it, or Every little helps had anything memorable about them on day one?

    Where I tend to agree with you more fully, though, is in these instruction lines. Semiotically, they are a recessive code – they hark back to market trader discourse such as ‘don’t look a gift horse in the mouth’. It’s the imperative voice at work, and in modern brand discourse, I thought we’d moved on from that, towards something more collaborative between the brand and its customer. But apparently not…

  • Damon Charles

    This is a really good example of a top line idea so vague and nebulous that even if it’s crap in itself, it can be rescued in execution.

  • Asbury & Asbury

    Thanks for the comments.

    Brenda – yes, it’s true they may be doomed either way. I wonder if brands are like artists, producing their best
    work either when they’re young or about to die.

    Matt – agree hashtags have a lot to do with it. Unlikely to get a ‘Refreshes the parts other beers cannot reach’ these
    days.

    Martin – interesting point. To some extent, I agree that slogans are like logos, which Michael Bierut has described
    as empty containers that we only fill with meaning afterwards. But I still think some containers are better than others. For example, I’d say ‘Every little helps’ is an intrinsically clever line, wrapping up a big strategic thought in a friendly piece of folk wisdom. Even if it hadn’t worked, I’d still think it was a clever line. But with others like ‘Just do it’ and ‘Think different’, it’s probably their success and attachment to a big client that makes them seem iconic. I guess you could say the same of all great ads, logos, posters, slogans – hard to separate the success from the work itself.

    • BrendaKilgour

      Ha. Way to work Bowie into the conversation. But he was a Pepsi man as I recall 😉 Who knows, finally reminding people how delicious Coke is might help them. But in the meantime they really ought to be working on a new version that doesn’t rot your teeth and cause diabetes.

  • Adam Gallacher

    great, great article, really enjoyed this, many thanks

  • Greg Bunbury

    Great article. If only they had you working on the campaign! I think ultimately it’s not just that it’s a bad line, it’s also that we don’t really know what a good one is anymore. It seems to me the true measure of whether slogans or hooks work, is their innate viral-ness. Not just a reference to social media, but whether they actually permeate our general awareness.

    I’ve seen bad ideas catch on like wildfire, and good ones fade into obscurity. Heard anyone ‘Argos’ anything lately? Unlikely. The general public may not articulate it as such, but we’ve all peeped behind the curtain, and recognise when someone is ‘trying to make fetch happen’. And we don’t always fall for it. So with these big brand pushes, it feels like the authors are forever contextualising something that probably shouldn’t require it. We need to hold up the thinking with the campaign, like a gentle argumentative footnote at the bottom of every ad.

    But I believe the best advertising today is a better product, and that seems to me to be Coke’s biggest challenge. Amidst daily stories on rising obesity levels and dietary concerns across the globe, product innovation is really they key to galvanise this business. ‘I’d Like To Teach The World To Sing’ is externalised joy – a compelling idea that a products value lies in shared moments. But to tie Coke to the words ‘taste’ and ‘feeling’ seems misguided in a world where ‘nothing tastes as good as skinny feels’ (Kate Moss’ somewhat inadvisable words, not mine). The line moves inwardly, it asks us how we do feel about Coke, and in this case that might be asking the wrong question.

  • jimdiorio

    With all due respect… are you kidding? From the line to the print to the TV, they’ve basically gone to market with a strategic mood board, consisting of every image and sound from every millennial-target ad from the last five years. Not a single one of any of these scenarios either needs or merits a coke. This is what happens when marketing people around the world can’t agree, and are terrified.

  • johnnyglock

    That line kicks ass.

  • Reed

    The line is awful, and the new TV spots they’ve produced along with it are about as bland as it gets.

    • Ana Verissimo

      Maybe I’m wrong, but it looks to me that is ‘bland’ on purpose. I actually like the moodboard type of campaign, it’s like going back to when advertising was simpler, and it probably makes media integration easier.

  • Louise

    hi Nick, love your article – it’s really thoughtful and interesting. I also really enjoyed the discussion below particularly the comments from Martin and Matt. When I saw Taste the Feeling I connected it to the increased cultural interest in sensory complexity, emotional and sensory interaction, synaesthesia and that kind of thing. That probably sounds like a huge leap to make, but I think the brand has at least opened up that space with the line, giving itself a lot of room for exploration there. Even if this first expression seems limited.

  • Asbury & Asbury

    Great to get such thoughtful comments.

    Louise – interesting point. Thing about brand lines is they’re often pretty bland in their own right, but can act more
    like creative briefs, opening spaces to explore. So maybe this does that.

    Greg – great point about moving inwardly / asking the wrong questions. Suspect they’re trying to engage people’s emotional response and steer them away from rational objections. But as you say, even raising the question of ‘how do you feel about Coke’ is risky.

    jimdiorio (and others) – harsh, but I know what you mean. One day, I think computers will be smart enough to create
    brand campaigns, and this is exactly the kind of thing they will create. Something about the slickness and single-mindedness feels robotic and ruthless. But I also kind of admire it.

    Mixed feelings.

  • Gordon

    The images are so overly photoshopped.

  • PD

    Really interesting article.

    Taste The Feeling feels way too bland, global and mood film esque to work. Millennials are busy chiming to companies with cute start-up stories, and home-shot Youtube edits, and real life ‘random acts of kindness’ – not this. Another fallacy – making an advert ’emotional’ by showing people having emotions. It needs an actual narrative to make us feel something as a viewer. The strategy hinges on a campaign that can show it through, and this doesn’t.

    Some other directions that could help:
    – Innovate its products quicker to take note of health concerns (though it owns Vita Coco and Innocent, so it’s going to be fine). Add in vitamins & supplements, make a Coke a functional brain boost drink. It’s probably not worse than having a latte with a sugar, as many people do.
    – ditto innovate for adults looking to cut down drinking. Grown-up Coca Colas for teetotallers in bars and cinemas.
    – standing visibly up for ethical concerns – look at supply chain, corporate tactics, obesity campaigning (eg paying off obesity experts) etc.
    – mine the nostalgic feeling of Lana Del Rey style Americana
    – follow the ‘everyone knows’ strategy that the odd Coke doesn’t do you any harm, and stand for good old common sense and balance as the ‘anti-kale’ drink. But this could be cynical coming from Coke so needs to tonally right.

  • The last poster is a questionable poster in terms of the use of subliminal messages. Obviously in the size it is currently shown on the page you can’t see it. But driving down the streets (in London) before the poster becomes visible the flesh tones in the middle are more visible that the two people on the sides. The next time you see it from far away, post what you really see! I’ve asked many people and they were shocked what they saw from a distance. Try it and post back what you see!!!