It might not make sense that a product made of carbonated sugar water is among the most iconic brands on earth, but there you have it. With more than 1.8 billion daily servings in over 200 countries, Coca-Cola has managed to become so much more than bubbles.

Over the span of its 128 years, the brand has transitioned away from hard sell slogans to embrace higher-order brand values like happiness and well-being (its newsletter, for instance, is called The Optimist). Along the way it has co-opted the holidays, hippie culture, and more than a few Olympic Games.

With 78 million ‘Likes’ on its Facebook page, Coca-Cola is proving its staying power in the digital age. But as “brands as publishers” becomes the content marketer’s definitive rallying cry, Coca-Cola is looking way beyond ‘Likes’ to engage and build its audience.

Last November, Coca-Cola’s marketing team announced that “the corporate website is dead and press release PR is on its way out.” The eulogy cemented the brand’s transformation of its main site, Coca-Cola Journey, into a digital magazine – a place to showcase those higher-order brand values through lifestyle content.

The homepage of Coca-Cola Journey.

The homepage of Coca-Cola Journey.

Rebranding the corporate website

The revamped website and content strategy is a result of Coca-Cola’s Content 2020 strategy, allegedly a move from the ‘creative excellence’ of its well-known advertising to ‘content excellence’.

For Jonathan Mildenhall, SVP integrated marketing communication and design excellence, “all advertisers need a lot more content so that they can keep… engagement with consumers fresh and relevant.”

This is a typical perspective on the new order we are apparently working under as marketers. I am interested in whether this is true and whether these corporate content destinations are effective.

To that end, I reviewed a sample of 87 posts on the aforementioned Coca-Cola Journey site. To see whether people really are engaging with the stories, I documented the number of shares to Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn from each post.

I discovered the level of interaction was negligible: The average number of shares from a post to Facebook was 238, to LinkedIn, 103 and to Twitter, 42. Each post averaged eight comments and two-thirds of posts received no comments at all.

It is worth pausing for a moment to consider the implications: One of the biggest brands in the world generates next to no interaction through its primary window to the world.

The above graph represents the total number of shares from 87 Journey posts to Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.

The above graph represents the total number of shares from 87 Journey posts to Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.

Running dry on engagement

The numbers aren’t promising, but what makes things worse is that the majority of activity is concentrated around a mere handful of Coca-Cola-related stories which, while fulfilling the duty of being a newsroom, goes against the notion of being a genuine magazine.

Ashley Brown, the

Ashley Brown, group director of digital communications and social media for Coca-Cola.

The top three stories shared to Facebook account for over two-thirds of all shares to that platform. The top three stories shared to LinkedIn and Twitter accounted for a third of all shares to those platforms. In case you’re curious, you can read the numbers yourself.

This would be less of a problem if the magazine’s purpose was something other than audience engagement. But that doesn’t seem to be the case.

Ashley Brown, group director of digital communications and social media at Coca-Cola says “all throughout the site you are prompted to take an action of some kind,” yet the evidence shows this isn’t happening at a scale that reflects committed follower interest.

The problem is that a ‘Like’ isn’t the same as a ‘Follow’. Someone giving Coca-Cola a ‘thumbs-up’ doesn’t mean they have any interest in reading posts published by the brand. The result is lower than expected reader engagement.

Bursting the content bubble

None of this squares with Coca-Cola’s stated intent for the site yet many marketers parrot the corporate message. Consider Monica Savut’s article over at Econsultancy in which she asks:

How has Coca-Cola managed to create great stories, put creativity at the heart of those stories and build emotional ties with its customers that ultimately contribute to the bottom line?

This is written as though there is irrefutable proof the strategy is working, but in March 2013 Eric Schimdt, senior manager marketing strategy and insights, stated that mentions on the web had no “statistically significant relationship” to short-term sales.

Shortly after, Wendy Clark, SVP global sparkling brand center, administered a swift slap on the wrist, stating, “we’ve been able to track closed-loop sales from site exposure to in-store purchase.” Unfortunately she provided no hard evidence to refute the original assertion.

Not all content is created equal

Both Clark and Mildenhall have appeared on the marketing conference circuit in recent years, speaking about something they call ‘liquid and linked’ content as part of the Content 2020 strategy. This refers to “creative work that is so compelling, authentic and culturally relevant that it can flow through any medium.”

In a buzzword-laden video Mildenhall says their goal is to “earn a disproportionate share of popular culture.” Yet he only ever draws from a limited sample of content to validate the strategy’s success.

The example that stands out in terms of shares in data I reviewed is also the one which Mildenhall cites as his proudest work:

The video uses Coca-Cola as a conduit for celebrating cross-cultural friendship between uneasy neighbours India and Pakistan.

By all accounts, the video is a social media success. However, the few thousand shares that occurred on Coca-Cola Journey are peripheral to the hundreds of thousands of views it received on YouTube.

This costly public stunt is the kind of content that typically receives the most shares. But it’s also outlier content. You can see this for yourself by looking at the most watched videos on its YouTube channel.

What’s more, these comparatively few shares on Journey amounted to almost a third of all the shares to the platforms from the posts I reviewed.

Losing the media gamble

Despite the low engagement of Journey content, Coca-Cola has “made a multi-million dollar investment in content marketing and digital publishing,” says Brown.

It’s this statement that goes to the heart of my reasoning that these efforts produce little in the way of a justifiable return. The point is that a brand’s website is never the centre of attention, nor a point-of-origin, because it is not and never will be a content destination possessing a genuine readership.

In the social age, brands are very brittle creations. In a world of increased transparency and audience empowerment, turning brands into media companies has long been considered a way forward. 

Coca-Cola didn’t choose this strategy for no reason. In the social age, brands are very brittle creations. In a world of increased transparency and audience empowerment, turning brands into media companies has long been considered a way forward.

Producing content regularly, in sufficient quantity and at a level of quality that enough people read it and are inspired to share it is a resource-intensive task. Just ask the publishing industry.

And what’s true for publishers is true for one of the biggest brands in the world. Content marketing has its place – but avoiding evidence-based discussion contributes to a growing and public credibility gap between what senior marketers are saying and what is being delivered.

Current discussion about content marketing is the nadir of this disconnect: millions of ‘Likes’ yet interactions numbering in the hundreds. As Wendy Clark says, “all marketing strategies should start with ‘why’”. And on that point we agree.

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