In my last post, I focused on how storytelling impacts business by enlisting people as participants in stories they care about so they buy the products required to fullfill a human need.
But questions remain as to how brands can build narratives that tap into pre-existing stories and communities.

For Coca-Cola, this has become quite an exploration. While seizing market share is an ongoing battle with rival brand Pepsi, tapping into consumer advocacy and niche communities has become an equally important brand goal – a goal that was achieved almost by accident, with results that not only boosted sales but presented a host of new media opportunities.

Branding happiness

In 2007, Coca-Cola ran a series of commercials for a campaign called Open Happiness; the spots were beautifully conceived, animated brushstrokes of colour and imagination, depicting a storyworld centred around the idea that happiness is what we create for ourselves in our everyday lives.

They featured Coke as more than a product or brand, but as a support base for individual explorations around the meaning of happiness. There was no harsh product placement or forced messaging. The commercials tested remarkably well.

Coke knew that there was a bigger narrative to explore here, so it decided to expand the commercials into different narrative pieces leveraging established music and artist communities. What became the Happiness Factory created a groundswell of interest around the “metastory” of happiness that culminated in a variety of media types that were adopted, shaped and shared as new stories. This involved everything from mobile applications, to games, blogs and video extensions.

Eventually those pieces blew out even further. Open Happiness kickstarted a world tour of Coke bloggers and laid the foundation for platforms like Coca-Cola Conversations, in which brand stewards curate interesting and fun social artifacts such as Eric Clapton signature guitars, secret soda formulas, subway murals, circus caravans, old inventory lists and a host of cool memorabilia that have been generated or supported by the brand over the years.

As for the measurable success of the Open Happiness campaign to date, we know this:

Here’s where curation and community come in

Open Happiness has marked a profound shift in the way we might look at brands as expressions of culture at large. It has also forced us to look at why stories are so meaningful to us as people who consume products, and who directly or indirectly seek out the value of products beyond their consumption.There are some important things to take away from this:

  • The social web was still in its early infancy when Open Happiness began, yet the narrative tapped into a cultural vein that culminated in new stories and spread like wildfire. The campaign transcended its own media by connecting niche communities of people, including artists, writers, musicians, filmmakers, animators, politicians and activists.
  • The narrative had such scale for adoption and growth that it eventually could be applied to a number of channels, and in unique ways – each mobile app, game, blog, podcast and online video extension told its own version of the narrative, and still does.
  • Narrative development doesn’t have to find its origins in a new idea (many would argue that there are no new ideas); most stories already exist – they just need to be extracted and cultivated. This is what has made Open Happiness a platform with indefinite scale and unlimited possibility.

Making the story

This initiative also brings to light an important consideration: If a brand doesn’t already have legacy value – affinities that people already express for the product – it should create it through story. If a brand already has legacy value it should harness it.

Open Happiness has drawn upon Coke’s legacy value, and has turned that story into new brand equities that are rooted in everyday culture.

A common assumption among marketers is that consumers will engage with and participate in whatever a brand has to offer through things like social media. But brands need to invite people into a dialogue, either related to the brand, their own experiences or something that inspires them to participate and create their own forms of media.

In other words, brands should become better storymakers, not just better marketers who push their own agendas through the media channels they choose. More on that next time.