Three lessons from a Coke napkin

A pleasant surprise from my airline experience last week: This modest little Coca-Cola cocktail napkin delivers one of the nicest, most pitch-perfect marketing messages that I’ve seen in a while. Check it out, front and back:

Coca-Cola cocktail napkin from Delta flight

Coca-Cola cocktail napkin back from Delta flight

Why is Coke’s message so smart?

Strategically: It reflects everything the Coke brand tries to stand for: friendliness to all, “real thing” authenticity, and a distinctive taste in a world of wannabes.

Tactically: It delivers the message to a captive audience that has a free sample the product right in front of it. The message is completely appropriate and relevant. It’s beautifully written and designed, and as engaging as a napkin can possibly be. The right message, to the right people, at the right time. Perfect.

Three lessons for all marketers

1. Work on your key (strategic) messages.
If you think this message was simple and easy to produce — well, Coke and their marketing partners are so good at messaging that it only seems easy. Can you state your value proposition so easily? Does your company have a consistent voice and personality? These elements are central to your effective messages. Work on them and reinforce them — now, and constantly. A week or two before your trade show, or the day before your press release is due, is way too late.

2. Anytime, anywhere your company or brand interacts with your customers, there’s a profound opportunity.
Never take “small” touchpoints for granted. How easy it would be for Coke just to put a logo on the napkin, with an inane slogan. (I don’t believe “Open Happiness” is inane in any way, shape or form, but feel free to disagree.) This is powerful messaging where you’d least expect it. What are some small touchpoints that you’ve overlooked?

3. It’s harder than it looks to maintain market leadership in a commoditized category.
Coke has a hard job compared smaller brands that talk to more focused segments. Yet Coke still hit home runs. Think about it: Red Bull and Mountain Dew have created their own sub-categories. With much more focused audiences, their job of creating relevant communication is relatively easy. (Red Bull and Mountain Dew are tremendously successful, that’s part of the lesson.) But Coke must connect with 12-year-olds as well as their great grandparents, and they do a great job.

(Coke seems to be moving from “most liked” to “beloved” with their current efforts. Contrast this to the sad state of affairs over at Pepsi — their Super Bowl commercials, in particular). If Coke can rise to this challenge, how about you — whether you’re a market leader, or a challenger?

What do you think?

Do you agree that this example from Coke is a particularly strong bit of marketing? What lessons do you take from it?

8 thoughts on “Three lessons from a Coke napkin

  1. Barrett,

    Excellent post — crisp and zesty on the first read … 😉 I think that too many marketers try to crappify (my spellcheck says that’s wrong, but I used a double p spelling) the message with sub-messages. This is pretty straightforward. Now I’d like to see the follow-up campaign — on the back of a napkin, tell Coke why you like to drink it. Or add a twitter link and ask the question, get 140 char responses.

    @ArthurGermain recently posted..The Myth of the Big Agency

  2. Arthur — the Coke people should beat a path to your door! Great idea.

    You nail it with “sub-messages” that “crappify.” Small touchpoints, like the napkin example, can sometimes enforce a little messaging discipline. Though I think Coke already has that discipline, and didn’t need the limited space to enforce it.

  3. I like this example Barrett–it definitely shows why Coke is one of the top brands across the globe. I definitely agree that even the smallest touch points represent an opportunity to strengthen the connection with a customer. Every tweet, every status update, every product package is a potential marketing blockbuster. Of course I say this as I sip my Pepsi Max!!! 🙂
    Marianne Worley recently posted..Why You Shouldn’t Put Out Fires at Work

  4. Interesting point, Marianne — there are products I use though I like their competitors’ marketing better. At some point you separate the actual product from the image. In my case, I always liked Coke better than Pepsi so in that regard, I don’t care about the advertising. (I might be swayed to switch if I thought a company were unethical.) I do like this example, though.

  5. Hey buddy, kick my ass……..I can’t believe this is the first time in your house. We hang out at the same parties………:).

    Establishing a brand; hiring for culture, if you are sending the right message it’s much easier to do.

    I will always love Coke; I don’t know where you are from Barret, but down south we call every carbonated beverage coke; not pop, not soda….just sayin’….:). My dad used to cut my grandmother’s lawn every Sat; we were such bad kids she made us stay outside but when my dad was finished, she treated us to a 6 1/2 oz ice cold Coca Cola. Fond memories indeed, it is truly a beloved drink for me.

    My payin’ gig is commercial insurance sales; talk about being treated like a vendor at times. We have to work very hard to differentiate ourselves and we just celebrated the 70 yr anniv of the firm.

    Good post; thanks for coming by today.
    Bill Dorman recently posted..Do you have a defining moment

  6. Bill, thanks for coming by! I grew up in Richmond, Virginia. Not the deep South… but proud of its southern heritage. Coke didn’t have the same cultural impact in Virginia as it had in, say, Georgia. They’ve really had a rebirth in their brand messaging over the past few years. They have a pretty darn good ad agency on their side, Wieden+Kennedy (see: ) — it’s been fun to watch.

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