When Coca Cola and the World Wild Life Fund announced in October that they were joining forces and that Coca Cola was turning the classic red can an arctic white to bring awareness to saving the polar bears, no one could even fathom the backlash yet to come from consumers.  Who knew such a simple promotional opportunity would cause such a commotion?  What is the lesson to be learned from this branding mishap?

1.   Don’t Confuse Promotional Activity with Branding

Essentially what happened when Coca Cola changed the color of the can, is that the consumer felt that there was a change to the brand and the actual product.  Consumers are so conditioned to reach for the red can (or some semblance of it) when they want the classic Coke beverage that any diversion from that puts fear and doubt in their minds.  The rub with consumers seems to be that such a dramatic departure from the brand identity must have meant yet another ‘New Coke’ type of formulation change, and they are having none of that!  For Coca Cola, the lesson learned (again) is that this brand doesn’t really belong to them, it belongs to the public.

2.  Your Established Identity Is Your First Priority

Almost all businesses that strive to create strong brand equity would love to be as well-known as Coca Cola.  Arguably, the most known brand on the planet, Coca Cola and its classic script are universal. This identity is more than a color or font, it is an experience, a way of life, a part of life; and consumers have integrated the brand with their own identity.  You are either a Coke or Pepsi person and that is because the brand’s image is also the consumer’s image.  You mess with your brand image and you somehow cause ripples in the identity of the consumer.

3.  Messaging Is Paramount To Promotions

Sadly, what is missed in all of this is that the promotion was purposeful.  Coca Cola joined forces with the World Wildlife Fund to help protect the majestic polar bear.  In a statement taken from the Coca Cola press kit, Muhtar Kent, Chairman and CEO of The Coca-Cola Company said,

“We want to help the polar bear — a beloved Coca-Cola icon since 1922 — by helping conserve its Arctic habitat.  That’s why we’re using one of our greatest assets — our flagship brand, Coca-Cola — to raise awareness for this important cause. And by partnering with WWF, we can truly make a positive difference for these majestic animals.”

Did anyone get that? No.  Instead, it got lost in the chaos and shuffle of the cans.  When we embark upon any promotion or brand shift, messaging is key and this experience has taught us to be even more diligent in crafting and sharing our message.  Lose not the fact that our brand is our identity, promise and commitment to our consumer and our message flows from that.

I believe what Coca Cola and WWF wanted to do was noble and it shouldn’t be lost because consumers rebelled at a color change, so here’s some information on how to support the great efforts put forth.

Coca-Cola is making an initial donation of $2 million to WWF and inviting others to join the effort. Anyone who wants to help the polar bears can text the package code to 357357 to donate $1 to WWF. They also can donate online at ArcticHome.com, starting November 1. Coca-Cola will match all donations made with a package code by March 15, 2012, up to a total of $1 million.

Bottom line:

  • Don’t sacrifice your core brand for a promotional activity.
  • For major brands, the brand doesn’t belong to them, it belongs to the consumer.
  • And finally, make sure your message doesn’t get lost in the flash and promotion.

For more information, watch ABCNews.com’s story on the color recall.