The Campfire

6 Tips on Visual Storytelling straight from Coca-Cola

The Brand Finance 2021 Report puts Coca-Cola at the top spot for Brand Strength, whilst the rival Pepsi sits in 9th. What’s interesting is that the two companies actually have a similar budget for worldwide marketing, around $4.0 billion per year. With finance not an issue, there must be something else that distinguishes the pair.

It’s become progressively clearer to everyone that branding and marketing are essentially just storytelling, as is pretty much anything. Pumping funds into advertising is part of the process, sure, though all the money in the world can’t force that spark you feel when immersed in a narrative you believe in.

The Coca-Cola approach to visual storytelling is wildly successful because of a few main principles. If you’re looking to pick up some tips, here are the things that we can learn from their campaigns.

1. Visual Clarity

I say Coca-Cola, you see red. While clever marketers constantly manipulate colour, the original story is a little different. In the early 1900s, you bought Coca-Cola barrels at pharmacies, which was precisely where you also found alcoholic drinks. This created a little confusion, and there was also a hefty tax on boozy beverages. To set their barrels apart, Coca-Cola began to paint their product a different colour.

But why red? The reason why countless companies use red in visuals is because it is evolutionarily powerful. It creates urgency, whether a symbol of passion or danger, vigour or death, love or rage. For all the advancements we’ve made, relatively little has changed in our simian minds, which finds Coca-Cola red as visually stimulating as cavemen found fire.

That’s not to say that red is the best colour for all brands and stories. In an alternate universe, Coca-Cola is blue, with a chunky bold font entirely different from their current Spencerian Script.

Ultimately, it is visual clarity that matters. If what’s happening is the story, the colour and design is the introduction. It’s necessary (and efficient!) for people to begin from a familiar place, where they can instantly recall the past and anticipate the future.

2. Storytelling is Relevancy

Say you’re at a party, with a healthy amount of chatter and music. Engaged in conversation, you naturally tune out lots of surrounding noise. So how is it that you can still hear someone utter your name, as if it were a bell chime? Don’t worry, you’re not an ego-maniac.

As the science shows, hearing one’s own name causes an involuntary activation of brain areas, unique from hearing the names of others. It’s but one example of our strong self-
recognition abilities, another being that we love to identify ourselves in stories. Storytelling is relevancy. When you cannot find yourself, or some version thereof, you feel detached.

And so comes the ‘Share a Coke with…’ campaign, a prime example of customer engagement through personal touch. Printing names on bottles meant millions were able to create individual experiences, or find new opportunities to use the product. Billboards in Israel beamed popular names across cityscapes. In China, pet names were used to apply to a higher number of people.

Suddenly, your best friend was in the story, so you ask yourself “Am I?” The story validates itself when you see hands sorting through bottles to find the people they love most. For Coca-Cola, the humble name tag was a surprisingly effective way of linking their product with your friends and family.

You weren’t drinking soda anymore, you were sharing a narrative. Solely using our basic human instinct to be social, the Coca-Cola Company created a network with a clear message. Meeting up for Coca-Cola is just as precious, just as personal, as an afternoon tea or evening drink.

3. Create Context

In 2015, Coca-Cola launched #LETSEATTOGETHER in order to revive the culture of group meals, as opposed to scurrying away to separate screens or corners. Aside from re-establishing Coca-Cola as family-oriented, such a campaign provides further context on how people can enjoy the product.
Visual storytelling is so immediate that even a simple print ad, in which a knife and fork combine to create the outline of a bottle, is subconsciously setting the table in your mind. Anticipate your next meal and put Coke right in the middle of it.

In Romania, the #LETSEATTOGETHER campaign was helped massively by some fancy tech. Social media message of friends inviting each other to dinner were featured in TV ads live, thanks to real-time editing. It proved immensely successful, with thousands of invites being cast out to the nation.

Creating context is necessary for any storytelling. Coca-Cola is particularly good at presenting everyday as special, largely by not straying too far from relatable environments.

A huge amount of the company’s visual storytelling rests on people simply enjoying the product. It’s the principle of their ‘open happiness’ tagline, whether that pertains to colleagues, friends, couples or families.

4. Compelling Message

Seeing a cold glass bottle collecting condensation on a hot summer’s day has a good chance of making you thirsty. However, advertisements don’t have to rely just on purpose, which Coca-Cola has been proving for quite some time now. The company is incredibly adept at showcasing their product through the telling of meaningful, visual stories.

Take for example their 2013 initiative “Small World Machines.” Two Coca-Cola vending machines, kitted out with huge screens, allowed people in India and Pakistan to see each other. As two nations historically divided, participants were encouraged to join hands on screen and trace a peace sign together.

If you’re wondering what a sugary drink has got to do with world peace, you may have missed the point. By investing in compelling pursuits and social purposes, you create emotional response that aligns your brand with those feelings. Coke’s visual stories don’t just sell sodas, they cultivate the linking of positive principles to their drink.

When you’re at the cinema, nonstop special effects are impressive, but you’ll still deflated if the message is lacking. In much the same way, the value of Coca-Cola continuously splashing or fizzing Coke on your screen is limited. More impactful storytelling elevates a product, evokes a larger response and more deeply engages people.

5. Positive Stimulus

While companies do spend time making their user personas, Coca-Cola operates in every country but two. There’s no typical Coke consumer, so stories the company put forward have to be motivating for a diverse range of people. The more important factor is for their visual storytelling to be a positive stimulus.

Take “The World’s Cup” campaign for example. As an official sponsor of the 2014 FIFA World Cup, they were in the perfect position to spread positivity through a commonality between cultures. Perhaps the most striking element was their Happiness Flag, a mosaic of 3.5 million images, many of which were sent from fans of over 207 countries.

It was displayed on-pitch at the opening game of the ceremony, to the amazement of millions. Similarly to how the “Share a Coke with…” campaign had done so, individuals felt represented and a part of something larger. Happiness is central to their brand, which they pour into practically everything they do.

In visual storytelling, this kind of optimism is contagious. Even if you don’t think so, the Mere-exposure Effect tells us that you are more inclined to like some stimulus through repeated exposure to it. Whether it’s two friends or a worldwide spectacle, tapping into that positivity is a tried and true specialty of the Coca-Cola Company.

6. Simplicity Works

While the syrupy drink’s recipe has changed substantially since creation, what you do with it hasn’t. There’s a reason why they trademarked “Taste the Feeling” and not “Experience the Wonders of Carbonated Glucose Water.” Simplicity works.

The visual storytelling of Coca-Cola is great at staying grounded. Whilst other companies struggle to needlessly reinvent themselves, most people prefer an honest approach. Enticing gimmicks may work in the short-term, but genuine.

A cold drink is best in hot summer, something that practically everyone agrees on. As one of their busiest periods, they have lots of summer ads every year. Thus came the 2021 “Summer Tastes Better” campaign, which added short poems to labels epitomises the best moments of the season.

The impact of poetry on a Coke bottle may not be immediately obvious, but effective storytelling is as much about the way the story is told as the story itself. Brand Director Brandan Strickland explained that the “fun, pithy poems help paint a picture of the cherished summer moments… [which are] synonymous both with the season and Coca-Cola.”

There’s no frills to the concept. It’s the very human expression that summer is great, paired with a suggestion that Coke should be part of it. The redesigned packaging ran alongside radio and TV ads, which portrayed stories to the same effect.

This campaign, much like Coca-Coca’s entire visual storytelling strategy, is proof that marketers don’t need to overcomplicate things. A few words against a clean background is something that Coca-Cola has employed for decades, showing again and again that a lot can be said in few words.

7. Build on Existing Narrative

In 1931, Coca-Cola commissioned illustrator Haddon Sundblom to depict Santa Claus in their Christmas ads. Historically shown as strict and a little menacing, Coca-Cola made the character more wholesome and charming, which significantly helped shape the modern figure of Santa.

The jolly gift-giver represents many of the principles that the company loves to associates with, like generosity, human spirit and joy. Having Santa sip on a soda in the snow is a great exploit of the Halo Effect, whereby we are led to assume Coca-Cola is as unequivocally moral and pure by association.

Coca-Cola has built on this existing narrative to such success that many believe Santa Claus wears red because of the company. In actuality, it’s a happy coincidence, though it doesn’t stop them parading their giant red Coca-Cola truck through their annual ‘Holidays Are Coming’ ad, seen by many as the semi-official start of celebrations.

It can be argued that all narratives come from older tales, which is not to say originality is dead but that we are deeply sentimental creatures. Coca-Cola has found a way to intertwine the story of Christmas and their own through basic, dynamic storytelling.

How to Implement the Lessons of Coca-Cola

The long history of Coca-Cola has shown us that visual storytelling simply needs to be human. We form attachments to pretty much anything, as long as it feels real, which anyone can apply to their own branding and storytelling.

When creating your own material, ask yourself these questions in order to implement these lessons we’ve learned from Coca-Cola:

Who can relate? Just as we present ourselves differently in various situations, so too must a story be shown in a manner that truly relates to people. Every decision made in visual storytelling informs viewer response. Always remind yourself of who you’re reaching. Storytelling is relevancy.

Is the message compelling? It’s perfectly fine to advertise literally, using still shot photography of people interacting with the product. However, you shouldn’t rely solely on this kind of storytelling. Consider the core principles of the brand and build messages that showcase those values.

For instance, a bicycle company with the core value ‘comradery’ may produce a video that
repeatedly cross-cuts between a professional cycling team, a family in the forest, and two schoolchildren pedalling to school on a tandem. Accompanied by a tagline that promotes a ‘stronger together’ theme, ran alongside a campaign donating bicycles to those in need, it’s now blissfully simple for people to associate those values with the brand.

How should people feel? First and foremost, you’re concerned with finding a situation that embodies the product. However, you also need to pay great attention to emotion, a central element of storytelling. Pinpoint the feelings you’re trying to evoke and build the story around them.

The same bicycle company could run print ads that transform bike components into positive images, with brand colours as solid background. Using chains, sprockets, cranks, and whatnot to assemble graphics of people interacting has instant emotional impact. It’s visually intriguing and reaffirms core values.

Which stories can I align with? Using the stories that have come before you isn’t laziness, but a wise and often necessary move. Familiarity is a pillar of storytelling, and thus branding. Choose stories that adhere to your brand identity and you can effectively siphons the thoughts and feelings that people have already formed about these earlier tales.

Take the Ancient Greek story of Pheidippides, running from Marathon to Athens to deliver news of a victorious battle. It’s the story that inspired the marathon as a sporting event. Imagine our bike company launching an ad where the dramatically sprinting Pheidippides is casually overtaken by a bike rider. There could easily be a series of these playfully subversive ads, with a slogan as simple as “If it’s not Brand Name, it’s History.”

The Relationship of Brand and Story

Coca-Cola is mature about the fact their product is an accent to the larger stories they tell. Togetherness, social responsibility, and human connection are the foundations on which this brand was able to become perhaps the most recognizable in the world.

Whichever stories a brand uses to illustrate themselves, the fundamental motivation is to create a real connection between company and customer. People have never been so well informed, meaning businesses have never been so exposed. It’s incredibly dangerous to underestimate the average person’s ability to notice a charade, to see clearly when a company is forcing an insincere message.

The most valuable thing to learn from Coca-Cola on visual storytelling is that real stories connect, honesty works and – with a net worth of close to $90 billion – it definitely pays to be nice.

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