Marketing is Coming to Town

There’s a 50′ wide billboard near my house with a beautifully-illustrated Santa guzzling a glass bottle of Coca-Cola. What could be more classically Christmas than Santa himself?

Well, it turns out, The Coca-Cola Company.

Before the 1930’s, Santa’s image was wildly inconsistent. There were hints of the St. Nick we know and love in popular culture - a magazine story or children’s book here, a small market advertisement there. But when The Coca-Cola Company commissioned illustrator Haddon Sundblom to create a series of ads featuring a friendly, relatably-plump Christmas icon, they shaped the modern image of Santa.

Coca-Cola gave Christmas a face, and then controlled the narrative.

Ho, Ho, Ho-ly Shareholder Value

The Coca-Cola Company has a market cap just shy of $180 billion. Forbes lists them as the 4th most valuable brand behind Apple, Microsoft, and Google, tech giants that have shaped the modern world.

Not bad for flavored sugar water, right?

I’m sure the nice folks at Coca-Cola like to giddy up jingle horse pick up their feet as much as the next multinational beverage corporation, but they aren’t plastering the countryside with 50′ Santas to spread free Christmas cheer. There’s something else at work.

The Coca-Cola Company has built a globally-recognized brand by creating seasonal content that tells a clear story with no direct correlation to the product itself. They do this for one, simple reason – so you will exchange your money for their product.

Gerry McGovern writes:

There is a type of product that [requires] lots and lots of content marketing and will continue to require such marketing long into the future. The type of product where the more you learn about what it’s made of, the less likely you are to buy it. Thus, the product’s manufacturers must create a ‘brand’ that is as far away from the actual product as possible. Coca Cola and Red Bull are good examples of such brands.

Coca-Cola does this kind of content marketing with Santa, just like they’ve done it with hilltop hippies in perfect harmony, Mean Joe Greene, Max Headroom, and that adorable, cuddly family of polar bears frolicking under the Northern Lights. Most of Coca-Cola’s marketing is not about Coca-Cola the product.

Meanwhile, Red Bull is busy jumping from the stratosphere, downhill mountain biking in the wilds of Africa, hosting B-boy competitions, and hanging out over in Rad Town with their rad friends making rad stuff like this:

Like Coke, Red Bull’s product is flavored sugar water. But you didn’t just watch a video about flavored sugar water. There’s no explicit mention of the product in that video at all. It begs the question: is it still a commercial for a product if you never mention the product?

Brand If You Do, Brand If You Don’t

Buy Red Bull’s product, or share brand content with people that might buy their product - as long as you’re helping to tell the brand story, you’re helping their profits move up and to the right.

Videos like these help keep Red Bull in business, but making videos is not Red Bull’s business; Red Bull sells flavored sugar water. This is absolutely a commercial for Red Bull the product, even though it’s a video of Red Bull the brand that doesn’t mention the product. Videos like these, or at least some variety of content marketing like them, are absolutely necessary for Red Bull because their product can’t win on its own.

If Red Bull the brand or Coca-Cola the brand only focused on Red Bull the product or Coca-Cola the product, they wouldn’t have much to talk about. “Buy our flavored sugar water. That’s literally the only reason we exist” makes for a boring ad campaign. Those companies would fail because less potential customers would care.

We’re Hardwired for Stories

The 7.4 billion people on Earth have this in common – we’re all custom-built story receivers. Give us a hero to root for (or, better yet, make us the hero), introduce some drama, some life or death stakes, and you’ve got us hooked.

Good storytelling is engaging, addictive, and, surprisingly, entirely formula-driven. The stories that capture our imaginations are rarely unique. They follow the same patterns and obey the same rules. And our brains love them for it, because we don’t have to think, we only have to experience. No wasted effort to organize abstract information-only the story framework to deliver the message loud and clear.

Companies like Coca-Cola and Red Bull tap into this. The product is the point, but it isn’t enough on its own. To get and keep our attention, they have to tell us a better story than the one their product tells. They need to bypass our reasoning, organize information for us, and deliver it directly to our subconscious.

Heavy stuff for flavored sugar water.

You’re smart. You know that if you drink enough Coke, you’ll get fat from the empty calories, corrode the enamel off your teeth, and start hearing phrases like “pre-diabetic”. (I can speak with some level of authority here.) But then the brand steps in to say, “Oh hush now, Big Science — if you drink Coca-Cola you’ll be refreshed! You’ll share happiness with friends and resonate with the childhood nostalgia of glass bottled summers and Christmas cheer!” Friendly family-oriented polar bears will snuggle you.

Nostalgia is simply a better story than Diabetes.

If you pound enough Red Bulls, you’ll binge on caffeine and get panic attacks. Extreme sports spectacles are better stories than energy drinks. Heck, even calling the product “energy drinks” is a better story than calling it “flavored sugar water.” It’s stories all the way down.

Pay No Attention to that Brand Behind the Curtain

The most successful companies aren’t the ones with the biggest budgets, or the hottest ad agencies, or even the best products. As Donald Miller1 says, “The best products and services are the ones that people can understand.” The easiest way to help people understand what we’re offering is by organizing that information in a familiar framework they can intuitively follow. That’s why we tell stories.

The difference between Coca-Cola/Red Bull and whatever you do in the 9–5 is that you don’t have to tell stories to distance your brand from your product. Hopefully you believe in your brand and your product, so you can tell a holistic brand story about your product.

If you’ve got a better product, service, or experience to sell than Coca-Cola and Red Bull-great! The world needs better things. We have the ability to make life better for people. But whatever better things we’re offering have to be clearly understood by our audience, or people will never take action. We have to tell a better story, or risk being drowned out by all the noise.

We don’t have to use the power of storytelling to sell junk no one needs. Find a product you can believe in, and tell that story. People are built to listen.

I started writing this post, but couldn’t land the plane. I had the pleasure of sitting in Donald’s StoryBrand presentation this week, and it was extremely helpful for connecting the dots between McGovern’s quote and telling a better story. Thanks, Don!