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There goes Coke’s dynamic ribbon

Coca Cola has been in the news a lot recently.  Indeed, many marketing departments must now be wondering whether they should be changing their names to “growth” departments, given Coke’s decision to replace the role of chief marketing officer with chief growth officer.

In less positive news, the company has been attracting silly headlines from some of  the media thanks to its revised position on profit.  Headlines such as “Has the fizz gone out of Coke?” and “The outlook for Coke is less bubbly” have been a constant feature of stories relating to the beverage giant’s revised earnings outlook.

What to lose and what to keep.

What has been less reported is the decision to lose what many consider a core component of its branding in its new product line up.  In case you haven’t noticed, a unique element of Coke’s trademark has fizzed – sorry, I promised I wouldn’t do that – faded away! From a core identity perspective, Coke has deployed three brand assets to its advantage in the past.

The Spencerian script that adorns the side of its cans and bottles makes it easy to spot a Coca Cola product. From a structural perspective, the classic lines of the Georgia Green bottle make it hard to miss. Finally, the dynamic ribbon that flows underneath the Coca Cola script is something that has boosted Coke’s stand-out on shelf. Interestingly, the dynamic ribbon has not been retained in the latest makeover of Coke products.

Surprisingly, fewer brands than what you may think have features that distinguish them in just one, cursory glance, sound or sensation. Back in 2004, Cadbury chocolate went to significant lengths to trademark the particular shade of purple that features so prominently on its chocolate.

Many were surprised at the time and questioned how important a shade of purple could be. A decade on, Cadbury’s decision to “own purple” was a savvy one.  Cadbury realised something many marketers still grapple with: Sacred brand assets are not easy to come by.

Sacred assets

In their simplest form, sacred assets constitute the most important expressions of a brand. They are the elements—visual, behavioural, experiential and verbal—that truly define a brand. In the ever-accelerating humdrum of global choice, brands are the most effective way of cutting through the noise to tap into the consumer’s psyche and engage in a more meaningful dialogue. Sacred assets can propel a brand’s emotional connectivity with its target audience whilst stealthily relegating the competition to a position of diminished relevance.

One size doesn’t fit all

The sting in the tail of a sacred asset is this.  Your competitor can’t use it.  That’s right:  when you have something that only works for your brand(s), why would someone else bother replicating it? Imagine if Moet et Chandon stuck bright orange labels on their bottles of champagne. Or, if Cartier placed its jewellery in little, light blue boxes.

Asking for a Chivas “Black Label” just somehow doesn’t have the same ring about it. And, no matter how hard Samsung, Dell or Sony may try, the svelte, superbly sculptured lines of a reassuringly, solid laptop are yet to be attributed with any other brand than the one evolved by Steve Jobs and Jony Ive twenty something years ago.

For too long brand managers have been treating all audiences the same. Marketing academics and practitioners alike have conditioned their many disciples to think this way. In numerous instances it’s been an effective mechanism for growing, or defending, brands.

Yet, the advent of social media has challenged this “one size fits all” approach. Consumers can now share an opinion – be it good or not so good – with a nonchalant swipe of a screen. With so many stakeholders influencing a brand, a more bespoke approach is required. Whist some expressions define the very core DNA of a brand, others do not.

What can your brand truly own?

The Langham Hotel chain spent a fortune developing a scent that distinguishes its lobbies, elevators and guest rooms from all other hotels.  It’s hard to believe now, however, in the mid 1980’s Harley Davidson motorcycles nearly went bankrupt.

The brand community – a number of them employees – rallied around the company and provided a cash injection to guarantee solvency. In doing this, the brand’s custodians doubled down to return its motorcycles to their former glory. Legal protection was sought for the unique exhaust note of a Harley and, in doing so, a sacred brand asset was secured in perpetuity.

Be careful of what you let go.

The next time you’re in an airport watching various airline’s cabin crews form neat parades as they file through customs, ask yourself if any airline signifies inflight service better than the Singapore Girl? Or, if any other German, luxury sedan can incorporate the three-pointed star into so many different facets of its design?

Distinguishing a brand from all the other pretenders requires constant tweaking and a ton of foresight. Brands battle it out to establish wafer thin points of difference that can then give them the jump on their competition. Market share gains are the domain of battles hard fought and won.

So, it’s odd – some might even say courageous – to walk away from a sacred asset like the dynamic ribbon. Clearly more will be revealed by Coca Cola.  Although, as I write this column, one could easily be forgiven for thinking Coke has just blurred varietal segmentation by placing regular Coke, Coke Light and Coke Zero all in the same red cans.

Is red the new black, and will it become Coke’s version of purple?  Or, is it at risk of becoming a frustrating distraction when choosing your favourite can of Coke?  Only time will tell. But, one thing’s for sure. Without the tried and trusted dynamic ribbon device it seems the chances of standing out from the competition just became that little bit harder for the world’s best-selling cola.

The writer is Nick Foley, president of Southeast Asia, Pacific and Japan for Landor.

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