Ethnography & Analysis

Inside the International Marketing of Coca-Cola

Coca-Cola may seem like a simple soft drink company, but its mission expands far beyond providing drinks to the world. Its company goals, “to refresh the world”, “to inspire moments of optimism and happiness”, and “to create value and make a difference” are broad and ambitious, and do not seem like the kind of goals one would associate with a soft drink company (The Coca-Cola Company). These goals are very much reflected in their advertising campaigns, which include slogans like “Coke Adds Life”, “Have a Coke and Smile”, and the most recent “Open Happiness”.  All of these campaigns are purposely broad, and express a broad theme, in order to connect with people of all cultures and backgrounds. As creative team leader and director for Coca-Cola International Advertising Marcio Moreira notes, in Coca-Cola’s global advertising “the motivation is to have a common idiom, but not necessarily the same look” (O’Barr). In global advertising, Moreira says that “becoming part of people's lives, belonging, is the name of the game”, and there is always space for happiness, refreshment, and all the universal themes that Coke advertises, in people’s lives regardless of which background they come from (O’Barr). Thus, by building its mission around a common idiom that is relatable for people around the world, Coca-Cola has already brought itself halfway to its goal of efficient global advertising. The other half of the process involves tweaking its “look” to complement local impressions of Coca-Cola. Moreira describes how this was done for the “Coke is it” campaign that was used in America initially, and was then implemented in Japan.

“The advertising started with "Coke is it-the biggest taste you've ever found" and just kept on going like that. That was developed by John Bergin and myself, in our respective groups. InterNational Team then took the campaign and interpreted it for the international markets where, if you came first out of the box saying "Coke is It," you would be rejected. People would say, "No, sorry, not here it isn't." That's the thing to remember, Coke is a guest, not the host, in most countries. Whereas, in America, it's the host. We rewrote the campaign for international and we never sang "Coke is It" up front. We actually sang a whole stanza explaining "Coke is It" and then made the statement. We wrote: "It's a part of me and you, and all the things we like to do. Coca-Cola is there, part of all that we share, always good, always real, always true, Coca-Cola is It!" So, "Coca-Cola is It" was a conclusion, a logical conclusion of "Since it's a part of everything that we do, since it's something that we share," then "Coca-Cola is It." There was a difference in tonality for the international markets which, I think, is a great example of what I'm trying to say in terms of yes, we are communicating essentially the same things, but we are also acknowledging the marketing realities of each environment” (O’Barr).

With its internationally relatable mission and accommodation of “marketing realities” in every country, Coca-Cola effectively spreads its message of happiness, and ultimately, its product, to every corner of the world.

It is important to note that there are many parties working within and for the name of Coca-Cola. This reflects the fact that the advertising business involves many people, especially in the creative process of creating slogans. Moreira notes that although himself and John Bergin came up with the original “Coke Is It” slogan, a whole other “InterNational Team” evaluated the slogan and informed Moreira and Bergin of whether or not it was internationally appropriate. Just within the simple task of coming up with a slogan, there were multiple teams and people involved. Moreira himself is also involved with McCann-Erickson, an advertising agency that works with Coca-Cola in creating many of its advertising slogans and commercials, namely the infamous “I’d Like To Buy The World A Coke” hilltop commercial (The Coca-Cola Company). Thus, whenever we refer to Coca-Cola’s marketing practices, it is important to remember that we are also referring to the numerous creative minds and teams behind the marketing process. It is only with the collaboration of various people that Coca-Cola can maintain its worldwide commercial status. In addition, it is important to distinguish Coca-Cola as the company made up of many workers, who consciously market the company in a certain light and whose ultimate motivations are to sell their product, and Coca-Cola as the image or perception of the brand that is shaped by both the way it is marketed and the way it is received by the consumer population in every country. Although the Coca-Cola company would ideally like to have its marketing received exactly the way it was intended to be received, its marketed identity does not always agree with the way its image is perceived in different countries.

Marketing Techniques
The Coca-Cola Company also takes advantage of another marketing technique: ubiquity. It seems to plaster its name everywhere, in what appear to be the most random locations, but it actually places its logo in specific places for a specific reason. Coca-Cola’s logo is strategically placed in areas and events usually associated with happiness, harmony, and sportsmanship, such as amusement parks, sports stadiums, and World Cup posters. Thus, the company purposely links its brand, and its product, with happy places and memories, good values such as teamwork, cooperation, and sportsmanship, and good times through positive association (Coca-Cola: The Real Story Behind the Real Thing).

Coca-Cola: The Real Story Behind the Real Thing Documentary 

Research in positive psychology has shown that “lasting happiness is the result of an engaged life, one with close social ties and one that is motivated by values and goals larger than oneself”, and it is exactly this lasting happiness that Coca-Cola is trying to tap into (Nuys). The appeal to people’s need for a more substantial type of happiness can be seen clearly in Coca-Cola’s “Open Happiness” music video, in which everyone is invited to join in a type of self revolution and self improvement that will ultimately make for a happier society, with the lyrics: “open up a little happiness today, so I can be someone new…open up a smile on another face, so I can feel something new.” Therefore, it is with the use of positive association and positive psychology that Coca-Cola taps into the universal desire for a deeper, lasting happiness. I would argue that this universal desire is not just a desire for happiness – it is a desire for something deeper, for what Siegfried Kracauer describes as “life essence” (Kracauer 168). Kracauer noted that the factory worker or the lesser employee living in industrial cities in the 1920s often felt that their lives lacked “life”, and thus “they escape to the cinema…There the moviegoer finds the fuller life which society denies him” (Kracauer 167). Today, although there may be less factory workers in America, it could be argued that the modern businessperson, confined to a cubicle for most of their day, would feel the same way about their lives. For those in other countries, where the role of the mindless factory worker is still a common job, the desire for something more still exists as well. Coca-Cola’s advertising, like movies, appeals to the desire for something deeper, something more full of life, that every modern working person harbors, regardless of their country. Thus, in advertising the fulfillment of this desire, Coca-Cola manages to connect with people around the world.

American Open Happiness Advertisement












Coca-Cola: Not Just American Anymore

The acceptance of the Coca-Cola brand as part of a country’s culture is paralleled by other brands marketed in countries other than their origin. In Arlene Davila’s investigation of the locally produced Puerto-Rican show “El Kiosko Budweiser,” she points out that people are “always recognizing that the locally produced shows are reflections of the local culture,” despite the fact that some of them, such as “El Kiosko Budweiser,” clearly originated as marketing strategies for products that come from other countries (Davila 455). Because Budweiser had established a long history of advertising in Puerto Rican kiosks, and the sponsorship of television shows by international corporations was so common that it was accepted as normal, many Puerto-Ricans “dismissed the Budweiser advertising on the show as irrelevant” (Davila 463).

Thus, the people of Puerto Rico accepted “Budweiser beer as a local product” (Davila 463). The brand of Coca-Cola is often accepted as a part of the culture in countries besides its country of origin for this same reason. It has plastered its advertisements on the billboards and shops of foreign countries and run its television ads on their networks for so long that it has begun to be accepted as part of the country’s culture. The fact that a brand can simply integrate into a culture by sheer ubiquity is alarming, but it also provides us with some insight on the plasticity and constantly evolving nature of modern culture.

From very early in its marketing career, music has been an essential part of Coca-Cola’s advertising. The connection in advertising is a natural and intelligent business move, as “both popular music and colas share a similar demographic,” which is the younger generation of consumers (Klein 7). The association of Coca-Cola with music is more than an effective marketing strategy, though; it has also facilitated the acceptance of the Coca-Cola brand into different cultures. Music is an undeniable part of culture, and because of it repeatedly being marketed alongside music, “Coke…[has] effectively become part of music culture, as well as part of the larger culture too” (Klein 17). As the music in every country and culture is different, Coca-Cola has paired with popular musicians in every country to create its jingles, thus integrating itself into the country’s music culture while still maintaining loyalty to its brand by using the same universally recognizable combination of chords. This can be evidenced in the Taiwanese Coca-Cola advertisement, in which popular Taiwanese star Wang Lee Hom sings the same Open Happiness song that can be heard in the American version of the music video, but with his own Taiwanese twist.

A Taiwanese Coca-Cola Advertisement













It is important to note that no matter which musician the Coca-Cola company collaborates with and no matter which culture it advertises itself to, the same theme of cooperation, unity, and happiness is expressed. The light, uplifting music of the advertisements, paired with the images of initially frustrated and separated community members suddenly coming together to happily achieve a task and overcome problems, carries the impression that the Coca-Cola drink can bring this kind of peace and cooperation to a community. Thus, “Coke…[has] taken the message that music can change the world, which may actually be true, and transformed it into the suggestion that cola can change the world” (Klein 16)

An Indian Coca-Cola Advertisement











Coca-Cola in India

In dealing with marketing in India, the Coca-Cola company had to face the issue of globalization, which often dealt with “the tension between cultural homogenization and cultural heterogenization” (Mazzarella 33). As India developed, it was no longer enough to market everything using the same Western methods; the Coca-Cola Company had to learn to appeal to the emerging “Indian consumer” (Mazzarella 34). At the same time, it had to do so without losing its brand image, because as Mazzarella notes, “mass-produced goods are “mere” commodities, functional items that are humiliatingly forced to compete on price,” and  “the brand is the only thing that will stand between you and commodity pricing” (Mazzarella 54). Coca-Cola’s brand sets it apart from all the other sodas that were sold in India.  However, as was evidenced in Mazzarella’s survey comparing Indian opinions of an Indian cell phone provider (EMW Mobile) and a foreign cell phone provider (SamTech), Indian people preferred the Indian cell phone provider “because they are Indian, [and] they will understand Indian needs” (Mazzarella 41). The EMW’s “Indianess made it a “warm” and “approachable” brand” while SamTech “was deemed ‘international and more efficient but also cold and distant’” by Indian consumers (Mazzarella 42). One person even used the following comparison “EMW Mobile is like my wife…SamTech is like a beautiful colleague in my office…We all know who we would choose” (Mazzarella 42). This faithfulness to the “Indianness” of a product was acknowledged by Coca-Cola marketers, as seen in their recent advertisement put out around the time of the Indian holiday, Diwali.

Just as Coca-Cola honed into Christmas in the United States, it is attempts to connect with the Indian consumer by attaching itself to a traditional Indian holiday. For the Indian consumer, although they may know in the back of their minds that Coca-Cola is a Western product and that the ultimate goal of the Coca-Cola Company is to make money, the fact that its advertisements encompass the feelings of Diwali, and of life, so well assures them that Coca-Cola also understands, cares for, and resonates with Indian culture, and will be worth spending money on. Thus, Coca-Cola’s advertising, just like other forms of advertisement “strikes a careful balance between fooling the viewer and assuring the viewer that he or she is no fool” (Klein 4-5). The Indian consumer is not fooled, but convinced, into buying Coca-Cola of his or her own accord, because it seems to represent and be part of the Indian community. Just as it did with music, Coca-Cola is attaching itself to an aspect of culture, and through association, making itself a convincing part of the culture.

This is undoubtedly not the first time Coca-Cola has associated itself with an Indian holiday, as Coca-Cola’s strategy of associating its product with Indian holidays seems logical in a marketing sense. However, this association brings a certain expectation out of the Indian people that Coca-Cola may not be able to follow through on. Associating a brand with religious festivals reflects “increased consumer willingness to inject commerce into the domain of the “sacred,” but on the other hand, it is interpreted as a promise, and introduces strains of moral expectations in the consumer corporate relationship” (Vedwan 673). If the Indian consumer is willing to accept Coca-Cola into their traditional holidays, it means that they trust the brand’s image enough to feel that it is part of the community. The Indian consumer’s acceptance of the brand depends on their received impression of it as much as it depends on how it is marketed to them; thus “brands are coproduced by consumers and producers” (Vedwan 669). It is important to acknowledge this, the fact that the brand depends on both the produced image and the received image, because once the consumer’s received image changes, the marketed brand will no longer be substantial enough to convincingly sell the product, and in fact might make the company seem untrustworthy. If one thinks about the promises the Coca-Cola company advertises that it can deliver on, one can see that many of them, such as world peace and cooperation, are not something a single company can always accomplish. Normally, customers do not mind these lofty promises – they are in fact what attract the customers in the first place – but when the company is believed to have done something that contradicts these promises, the issue of Coca-Cola’s unfulfilled promises gets brought to attention and put under scrutiny. This will change the consumer impression of the image, as brands are constantly “open to reinterpretation,” and will cast the company in a suspicious light (Vedwan 669).

The received image of Coca-Cola in some parts of India lead to a “perceived betrayal of trust among the consumers” when the hopes and expectations the advertising inspired clashed with the actual actions of the company (Vedwan 669). In India Coca-Cola bottling factories are often built in dry, desert regions. In the villages surrounding these factories, the Coca-Cola company is viewed as a leech, taking water, life, and livelihoods from the villages it establishes itself in. One villager, Urimila Viskama, comments on what she believes Coca-Cola is doing to her village and India in general.

“This factory has not brought progress to our region. It is of no use to us. We were happy when they first came, we thought it [was] good that they invest in the countryside. But for years now we have watched them waste our water, that’s not progress. Now we left here as beggars and losers, and soon there will be many more people like us. This is not the way forward for India. We can’t afford to lose our water.” (Always Coca-Cola)

Click to watch "Always Coca-Cola"

The initial impression, brought on by advertising and branding, that Viskama and many other Indians have – that Coca-Cola, a “symbol” of the “Western world” and progress, will bring good changes to their village – only amplifies the feeling of betrayal they feel when they perceive that it is actually robbing them of their life resources (O’Barr).

Another villager, Anil Kumar, claims that Coca-Cola “has ruined my life. I had rice and wheat, I was a rich farmer. Now I have to work as a farm laborer far away from home.” (Always Coca-Cola). Protestor Nandahl Master echoes the same sentiments of Coca-Cola destroying Indian livelihoods, claiming that “Coca-cola is using up millions of liters of clean drinking water every day here. The ground water level has gone down over 60 meters. They just pour all their wastewater into our fields, and thereby they destroy all our harvest” (Always Coca-Cola). The contrast between the destruction of livelihoods and the happiness, inspiration, and values that Coca-Cola markets makes it seem manipulating and untruthful  to the Indian villagers living near the bottling factories, and illustrates how Coca-Cola’s seemingly flawless global advertising messages can be severely lost in translation when the consumers no longer receive the brand image in a positive light.

In debates over whether Coca-Cola is responsible for depriving villages of water, as well as committing other crimes such as selling products with high amounts of pesticides, the Coca-Cola Company defends its actions by citing the historical reliability of its brand. However, “despite The Coca-Cola Company’s…sustained efforts to steer the debate toward what they considered the strengths of their brands…other perspectives entered the debate…which were detrimental to their efforts. The strategy floundered because it failed to take into account the plasticity of brand images” (Vedwan 669). Thus, when its actions come into question, other perspectives form about the Coca-Cola Company that cause its brand image to seem very transparent and unsubstantiated.


Coca-Cola marketers use a multitude of methods to get their product out to as many people and countries as possible. When deciding on slogans and advertisements, many advertising teams collaborate to ensure that the same slogan is relatable and appropriate for every country. They make sure that their brand expresses broad themes of happiness, cooperation, and community that cater to the universal desire for “life” by repeatedly marketing their product at happy events. When the company is marketing its product in other countries, it must maintain a balance between emphasizing its brand name and catering to the desires of the local population. Coca-Cola marketers work to integrate the Coca-Cola image into a communities’ culture by using the sheer ubiquity of their advertisements, and by marketing the product alongside other integral aspects of culture, such as music and holidays. However, for Coca-Cola’s brand image to be successful, its produced image must also be received positively by the audience. When the Coca-Cola company’s actions violate Indian interests, its positive brand imaging seems more like a lie to the customers, and sparks a feeling of betrayal. Thus, we can see the extent to which Coca-Cola’s branding strategy is efficient in selling its product, and the limits at which it fails.

Many companies have used Coca-Cola’s marketing strategies as a model for global advertising. Yet, like all strategies, it has its flaws. By investigating the effectiveness of Coca-Cola’s marketing and brand name, we can determine if we can, or should, apply these techniques to other situations. In looking at Coca-Cola’s successes and failures we can consider whether there should be a limit to what should be marketed, think about the responsibilities of a company that markets worldwide, and evaluate whether or not it is important that a company can deliver on the promises it makes through advertising.

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