Without a doubt, Neil Bedwell’s session, “Work That Matters: The Essential Role of Social in Cultural Leadership” was one of the best, if not the best, at the #SocialShakeUp. If you didn’t make it (and I sincerely hope you did), Neil Bedwell is the Global Group Director of Digital Strategy & Content at the Coca-Cola Company. He focused the session on the simple marketing rule Coca-Cola tries to follow – a brand is nothing without meaning. This might seem simple, and I think the theory it is, but rarely does a brand execute it as well as Coke.  

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It is no surprise that after being in the marketing game for more than 125 years, Coke has brand messaging down to a science, but it is somewhat surprising that they have been able to evolve it with the times so seamlessly. Bedwell asked a simple question, “Why do you use a product?” The first thought that popped into my head was, “because I like it” – of course, but Bedwell corrected – because it has meaning. He noted that when he was younger, he liked Coke because it was American cool (he is a Brit, by the way) and that it had meaning behind that impression.  With that in mind, Bedwell stated, “A brand’s job is to create meaning”. What a clean and concise statement, but certainly not easy to do. 

Product meaning is especially important with millennials and the future consumer because they are so focused on experience and how brands operate in the world. Before social media and before the net, consumers were focused on quantity, on materialism. Now, being a brand fan no longer just means buying a product, it means becoming a Facebook fan, telling your friends about it on Twitter and leaving a positive review online. It means making that brand apart of your life.  

Coca-Cola has decided that their meaning, the experience they want consumers to get from their brand, is happiness. This isn’t news to any of us, all of their marketing and advertising revolves around it, but what was interesting to hear was Bedwell’s view of this meaning from behind-the-scenes at Coke.

“Make your stand. Don’t finish your story. Let others finish it.”

This is how Bedwell explained how Coke creates meaning. They put the opportunity and the idea of happiness out to their fans, but they want each one to make it personal and take it as far as they can.  Their latest campaign, #WorldsCup, focuses on addressing the tension and inequality in the world through the World Cup. By adding that “s” to “World” in their hashtag, they will make this massive sporting event about the entire world’s happiness and not just the guys on the field. Their plan is to use the World Cup to bring people from different walks of life, different countries and those who love rival teams, together by turning the camera around from the players on the field to the people watching, past the stadium, past the city and into the world. Who thought that the guys, who make a soft drink that we can buy for less than $2, are the ones who are trying to change the world?

This mission and the meaning that Coke puts behind their products with each happiness campaign is what makes them one of the top companies in the world. They have created a deep relationship with consumers, not through the qualiity of their product, but through the brand love and loyalty they create through their marketing.

So lessons learned from the session? Bedwell said, “People are getting tired of frivolity. They want something with meaning. They want things that do some good” and I think he hit the nail on the head.