Putting Customers to Work

Click to the Coca-Cola Web site, and check out the growing collection of video clips and musical podcasts available via links on the front page. This is “The Coke Show,” the online centerpiece of the soft-drink giant’s newest global marketing campaign, driven by the slogan, “Welcome to the Coke side of life.”

The video files include glimpses of a dancing superhero, an awkward social encounter and a guy so distracted by a pretty girl that he drives his bike into a pond. They are by turns hip, slick and playful, the better to reinforce a branding message aimed at equating Coke with youthful good times. And almost all these video clips and podcasts were created by people who are not employed by the $23 billion, Atlanta-based Coca-Cola Company or its ad agencies, and were uploaded to Coke’s Web site—for free.

Coca-Cola, the No. 1 soft-drink company and one of the savviest marketers and largest advertisers in the world, is increasingly handing its precious brand over to its customers. “This is not a promotional thing. This is a part of a commitment on a global basis to connect with teens and other consumers,” says Tom Daly, group manager of global interactive marketing for the Coca-Cola Company. How big a commitment? The company has dedicated some of the most valuable real estate on the Web, including the “Coke.com” and “Coca-Cola.com” addresses, to brand promotion, much of it user-generated, with corporate information now residing at another site.

And Coke is far from alone in its embrace of the amateur. Iconic brands such as Chevrolet and big-time advertisers such as Burger King Holdings Inc., among many others, are turning to customers for help in marketing products. That can mean everything from creating content for branded sites to producing original ads, distributing amateur and professionally produced spots online, and blogging about products for love or money.

The common thread is user-generated Internet content—sometimes produced with Web 2.0 tools and other social-networking technologies, sometimes created with applications as familiar as e-mail—that allows all manner of personal and corporate content to be shared with ease. Or at least, it’s easy for the users.

For companies, turning customers into creators is not as simple as just inviting them to participate. It takes a fair amount of work, and sometimes fancy Web sites and major bandwidth, too. “Most people can’t start just with a clean sheet of paper,” says Coca-Cola’s Daly. Entrants in the monthly “The Coke Show” video challenge, for instance, are given access to online computer graphics and editing tools, as well as thematic cues, and top contributors are rewarded with both exposure and prizes. That kind of capability and bandwidth requires planning, investment and cooperation among different parts of the business.

Coca-Cola’s tech side played an enormous role in preparing the site, says Daly, but that was only part of the story. “You see the front-end manifestation of a strategy, but to bring together Coca-Cola’s Web properties in a more strategic way required a tremendous amount of work,” he says. “There was a clear recognition from the start that this must be a collaborative effort with IT and finance, not just some marketing guys coming up with something and throwing it over the wall. Decisions on the domain and use of trademark weren’t taken lightly, either. Our team [which designed the strategy and the site] was physically co-located, with everyone from different areas sitting in the same space,” Daly says.

Yet companies increasingly find the effort worth making. “Marketers want to play in the current where consumers are in charge of the conversation,” says Ed Dilworth, an executive vice president at Campbell-Ewald, the big Detroit-based ad agency that created a customer-participation ad campaign for Chevy earlier this year. “Word of mouth, people talking across fences, or digital fences—if you can link content to community and somehow tap into that current of participant communication, you can get a multiplier effect on your investment. Many more people saw the Chevy campaign for its Tahoe SUV, relative to cost, than would have seen it for the same cost of traditional advertising. Dollar for dollar, this can be a phenomenal success when it works,” Dilworth says.

Making it work, of course, is the trick. User-created content comes with its own set of risks, and requires companies to think as hard about their campaigns as they would about any traditional marketing effort. But in an increasingly connected world, where YouTube fetches $1.6 billion and the Technorati site tracks some 50 million blogs—and consumers have multiple media choices and several ways to avoid traditional ads—the do-it-yourself ethos is impossible to ignore.

Read the full story on CIOInsight.com: Putting Customers to Work.