Coca-Cola, Google, Branding, and Direct Marketing

In a weird set of coincidences, October turned into Coca-Cola month for me. It’s also a month I found myself repeatedly reminded of a brand’s power.

When speaking at events, Google is usually the brand I cite. That’s because my audiences understand the role Google plays in business success as it relates both to paid placement and organic search. If the Google/Doubleclick merger goes through (as most believe it will), the combined entity will play an even greater role at integrated marketing or, for those who consider the disciplines separate, direct response and brand marketing. That level of concentrated marketing and media power hasn’t existed since the Big Three TV networks achieved critical mass in the late ’60’s and early ’70’s.

Last week, I was privileged to attended Google’s Zeitgeist ’07 conference. I didn’t realize it at the time, but my interaction with the Coca-Cola brand began there (more on that later). The combined conference brainpower was astonishing. I can’t really think of any conferences with the same level of top-notch attendee and presenter mix as the ones I socialized with at Zeitgeist.

The key takeaway: most attendees love marketing as much as I do and can talk Web marketing strategies for hours, yet they’re well-rounded individuals who appreciate exposure to and discussion of world-changing themes.

Google’s events and marketing team understands one thing very well: Zeitgeist doesn’t have to be about marketing to further strengthen Google’s brand in the marketing community.

The mainstream press covered Zeitgeist in interesting ways. Former Vice President Al Gore was cited by the The New York Times for doing a great impersonation of Maurice L évy, chief executive at the Publicis Groupe during the Association of National Advertisers conference. L évy, after being asked which client was his favorite, had answered, “I love them all equally. I love all my children. I love, most of all, the next one.”

Former President Bill Clinton participated in Zeitgeist by way of a teleconference. And that’s where the Coca-Cola connection starts.

When Clinton took a sip of soda during the super high-resolution conference call, he purposely turned the Diet Coke can so the logo wasn’t visible. Yet many of us in the audience marveled over its recognizability and Coke’s free product placement. (Pepsi received some free branding too; some entertainers wore a Pepsi T-shirt.)

This week at the Direct Marketing Association’s (DMA) annual meeting, I was standing in line for my speaker’s badge. Bear in mind this meeting used to be all about direct marketing, In front of me was Carol Kruse, Coca-Cola’s vice president of global interactive marketing. I overheard her discuss Gore’s appearance at Zeitgeist. She also mentioned the Diet Coke can.

At the DMA conference, Kruse presented at a session entitled, “Build Your Brand with the Power of Direct,” a concept appropriate for search marketers. Clearly, many search marketers make campaign strategy decisions based in great part (if not completely) on pure DR metrics. Little, if any, value is given to the branding power of the listings themselves or the even more powerful experiential branding that occurs post-click on the marketer’s site.

I’m pleased to see interactive marketing become the catalyst that unites direct and brand marketing so budgets are allocated based on the net impact on consumer influence over time, not just within a narrow window of easily measurable results.

The future of digitally delivered advertising — search, context, channel, display, rich media, audio, in-game and video — looks extremely promising to marketers who embrace the holistic approach to advertising, media selection, and creative targeting.

Google isn’t the only player trying to help marketers solve marketing problems holistically. Microsoft, while not nimble, is committed to investing in digital media, has powerful assets in development, and has a strong launching pad beyond search.

For a final Coke episode, next week I’ll hear Kruse’s keynote speech at the eMarketing Association conference. I anticipate her session will examine Coke’s online branding and I hope she’ll comment on search. Google, which also presents at the event, will present a case study showing how search drives offline activity.

Dare we call offline activity caused by search advertising branding? The lesson for all marketers is that brand-building and directly measurable metrics aren’t mutually exclusive: both coexist in a holistic marketing ecosystem.

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