Brand building in a digital age with Wendy Clark

November 2012

In this interview, we talk about dynamic storytelling with Wendy Clark, SVP Integrated Marketing Communications and Capabilities at Coca-Cola. She tells us that long before the internet when New Coke was introduced, Coca-Cola learned that the brands belong to the people. She confirms from her experience that social media has only strengthened this notion and shares some ways Coke has learned to listen and facilitate dialog to help other marketers find their place.

This interview explores the impact of the web on how brands are built today. Wendy Clark, SVP Integrated Marketing Communications and Capabilities at Coca-Cola, shares some brand secrets around 'dynamic storytelling' and what it means to put 'digital first'.

Think with Google: Do you think brand building has changed in the digital age?

Wendy Clark: At its core, brand building has to stay the same because the goal is still the same: It's about equity and love for your brand. But even though the 'what' is the same, the 'how' is different because marketing is, by definition, dynamic. It needs to be in a constant state of evolution. It's not as straightforward as a shift from one model to another, though. Look at mobile, which is the most transformative technology out there right now. That's not replacing anything; it's just adding a new layer of complexity in terms of the different platforms and access points you have to consider. It's getting harder and harder to assess the landscape fully, and with the right measures for your brand or market.

TwG: What kind of impact do you think the web has had more broadly?

WC: Brand building is brand building, whether you're talking about analog or digital, offline or online, but digital makes everything so much faster and so much more measurable, too. The ability to swiftly and precisely impact your target audience, and know in real time how they feel, is what we were always trying to do in the offline world but we've had to wait for the technology to catch up. Today's toolset is a much sharper set of knives. That means there's simply a lower tolerance for bad marketing.

'Digital first' has finally reached a tipping point; it's where we are now, it's our lens.

TwG: How has this affected Coke's relationship with its consumers?

WC: Everyday, consumers remind us that Coke is their brand - whether it's via Facebook, where we have over 52 million likes, or the many videos posted to YouTube. That's why we've taken a 'Fans First' approach in social communities. When we build our brand in these digital spaces, we can lead or guide the conversation, but as soon as we start treating them like just another marketing channel, our fans let us know that we've overstepped the mark. They want to engage on their own terms, which means our job is to course correct, sense-check, or just feel and listen. We learned in the early '80s when we launched New Coke that consumers own brands. So now more than ever you have to overcome what you were taught in school. This idea that you can chart, plan, and control brands; that isn't possible anymore. But if you're brave enough to let go of control, if you really start to listen, then you might hear some truly revolutionary thoughts.

TwG: How can brands tell stories through digital? Can you tell us more about Coke's 'dynamic storytelling' concept?

WC: We've moved from the notion of one-way storytelling (content we push out) into something that is more about a loop of content and conversation. Our job is to fuel the dialog. When you're getting 15,000 tweets a day, it's impossible to ensure that the conversation is exactly what you want it to be, so you have to allow fans a measure of self-government. At the same time, everything you put out should be linked to a strategy. The lesson we're still learning as we embark on this journey is that because social networks and connectivity are now the norm, 'the truth' of your brand as you see it is irrelevant. All of our consumers and constituents hold their own truths born largely from their most trusted source - their friends and family in their networks. So it's imperative that companies and brands don't play from the corner and simply dispense their truth. We have to engage, get into the dialog, meet our consumers and constituents at their truth and help them to understand, accept, and embrace ours. If you're a good company none of this will bother you because you've got nothing to hide. Transparency is positive. From a media standpoint, we understand that isn't our only homepage; is our homepage, and YouTube is a second search engine. Eighty percent of all online sessions start with search, so we have to be there to meet people. It's about creating reach and trying to find the hand-raisers in any given crowd.

TwG: How do you strike the balance between giving up control to consumers and linking everything back to an overarching strategy?

WC: Well, it's not easy and certainly not found in any textbook. So, like most, we're writing the rules as we go. To be clear, we love the idea of our fans and brand enthusiasts wanting to tell and share stories about our brands. What an incredible compliment and honor. That said, as the brand itself, we also have a role to play in helping that storytelling be as good and authentic as it can be, and helping to fuel the best stories through our reach and scale. In our experience, when we collaborate we can tell better stories that reach more people. A great example of this are the two Grand Prix Lions that included Coca-Cola in this year's Cannes Festival of Creativity. Both came from collaboration. The first is the Mobile Grand Prix that was won by Google using Coca-Cola's Hilltop ad in their Re:Brief campaign. Google and Coca-Cola coming together made for an incredible outcome. The second is the outdoor Grand Prix where an illustration done by a 19-year-old Coca-Cola fan and designer from Hong Kong, Jonathan Mak, landed the highest honor in outdoor advertising. These are both great examples of communications that are rooted in the brand's strategy and created through collaboration. When we get co-creation right it's truly a '1+1=3' scenario.

TwG: How does digital inform strategic thinking and idea development at Coke?

WC: We do tons of research - we've created an online panel with 800 teens from eight different countries with real-time feedback to inform briefs, not to mention all the online communities and consumer fingerprints across our business. There's a lot of data for us to understand and digital makes us much more precise. 'Digital first' has finally reached a tipping point; it's where we are now, it's our lens. In terms of the work, five to ten years ago we started with the TV spot. Today, we begin by asking, 'How are we going to create stories that are "social at the heart" and ultimately shareworthy?' and the ideas flow from there, entirely naturally. As we do that, we're starting to see some of the best storytellers in the industry doing iconic work in the digital space - and consumers are a part of it. Look at Nike with 'Write the Future.' Consumers want to mess with it, play with it, tell you if they like it or not.

TwG: What's the secret to creating iconic digital campaigns?

WC: To me, it's about accentuating the human aspects of the web. The web is so human to me: The connectivity I have with my friends and family, texting my sister in real-time, co-creating with her. There's a humanity in digital that we didn't have before - I can travel half-way across the world and my kids can still see where mommy is sleeping. That's amazing, human and powerful for any brand, any company and any person.

Building a brand in an age of hyper-targeted messaging