BETC vice president and executive creative director Alasdhair Macgregor explains to LBB’s Alex Reeves what it took to put a universal Coca-Cola message of humanity into a virtual context
Coca-Cola’s most recent global marketing campaign reminds us that we’re all ‘One Coke Away from Each Other’. It’s a line instantly understood by anyone who’s ever been aware of Coca-Cola’s advertising (which is practically everyone), but the film at the centre of the campaign demonstrates that sentiment in a way that’s very 2021.
Blending real and virtual worlds, the film tells the story of an orc, stuck in a rut of endless digital violence, who asks himself what if Coca-Cola, as a symbol of togetherness, could bridge separate universes to create (the brand’s new philosophy) Real Magic?
Coca-Cola partnered with advertising agency BETC London to create the ‘One Coke Away From Each Other’ campaign, as well as top-tier director Daniel Wolfe and gaming and CGI specialist production partner Mathematic. The result is real. And it is magic.
This story of awakening is at once surprising but also totally coherent with the soft drink brand’s tone. And it began with a brief from Pratik Thakar, Coca-Cola’s head of global creative strategy and content. Creative agency BETC pitched on that brief.
“Fundamentally, the aim was to shift audience perception to have a more meaningful message, but to keep it as ‘Coke’ as possible,” says Alasdhair Macgregor, vice president and executive creative director at BETC, of Pratik’s brief. Thankfully, Coca-Cola is “one of the few brands in the world able to give this kind of message this universality,” he adds. “If you go to the jungles of Borneo you’re likely to come across a shack selling Coke.”
‘Real Magic’ was already part of Pratik’s brief - the idea that the real-life humanity of sharing a Coke is a magical experience.
In the context of a world emerging from a pandemic, Alasdhair instantly loved it. “You can’t not embrace Real Magic because of where we are today, what the brand stands for, what everybody wants. We want to have real magic between people, between nations, between ethnicities. We want people to be together and have the kind of connection that only Coke can really talk about globally. Everybody knows Coke so I think Coke is the right kind of brand to give a message that's slightly deeper and more meaningful than we have been used to in the past.”
The idea, as he and his agency saw it, was that Coke is “the vehicle of this idea of Real Magic, the magic that happens when people get to know each other. It's a very human story.”
But that universal story had to include a younger audience, so BETC’s team knew they would have to package it in an appropriate way. Gaming was a natural direction to turn to.
“I would argue that the famous ‘teach the world to sing’ spot, ‘Hillside’, is basically the same message. It has come together in a totally different way but the message is very similar. It's always been a coke message - we are better together than we are apart.
“If you're rich or poor, it's always the same Coke. You cannot buy a deluxe version of Coke. And that universality, that makes it real. If Jeff Bezos drinks a Coke, it’s the same Coke as the guy working in the Amazon warehouse is drinking, so it is what it is. Everyone knows it and everyone loves it.
“The paradox of this commercial is we've taken something that's not real and made it about a real product.” But that’s where the story really resonates on a new level.
This isn’t the first time Coca-Cola has harnessed gaming culture in its expansive marketing history, of course. In 2006 a US commercial followed a Grand Theft Auto-esque character on a similar journey towards pacifism. The ad even has its own Know Your Meme
Oddly, the similarities are a result of Coke’s strong brand and the ubiquity of gaming culture, rather than any direct link, says Alasdhair. “We weren't inspired by that ad. Obviously, the elements of gaming and the message are very similar, but the whole strategy and the whole context were different.”
Gaming today is on an incomparable scale to 2006 of course, particularly with the culmination of the esports revolution - something that BETC is inspired by. “Esports is taking something that's very individualistic and turning into a global mega event. So, I think I think it's changed and it wasn't the case in the ‘00s,” says Alasdhair.
Telling the story of this esports orc’s awakening was also a mega event. Alasdhair estimates it was six months’ work crammed into two months. Along the way, there were some crucial discussions, such as whether the campaign should link up with a real games publisher or create a character that is familiar but new. Ultimately, having tested some CGI options, the BETC team realised that they could create something bespoke within the timeframe. “We did some thinking, production-wise, and we decided that it would be great to do it from scratch, where we would have total control - if we could find the right partner to do it. And in Mathematic - a very famous CGI company right here in Paris - we found the right partner. They worked like crazy for two months. It was a 24-hour-a-day operation between Paris and Montreal. When Paris went to bed the guys in Montreal picked it up and vice-versa.”
Another stage that provoked a lot of discussion and creative decision making was the character design. “It really was a big big job starting from scratch, down from the very designs of the characters,” says Alasdhair. He remembers a lot of discussion around who the key figures should be, what they should look like, what kind of personality they would have. It went deep: “With the orc itself, we created a whole family tree. Where did he come from, what was his background, why is it that he had this change of heart?”
While great fun and ‘totally absorbing’, doing much of this with a French team between June and September was a challenge - France takes its summer holidays seriously - but the epic ambition of the project encouraged those involved to make exceptions.
The non-CG parts of the film were shot live in a stadium in Mexico City, which gave Alasdhair a chance to reflect on something else that’s Real Magic - the magic of cinema.
Music was another long discussion that made the creation of the campaign even more global. “When we pitched for the business we did a quick rough with very epic cinema music,” says Alasdhair, but debate raged over whether that was the right energy for a youth-focused spot. “We went around in circles saying our main target isn't going to be into that type of music, they're going to be more into something modern, hip-hop or whatever. So do we go with the particular music tastes or do we go for something that underlines the epicness of the campaign? We decided to stick with a big score, recorded in Prague by the Prague National Orchestra.”
All of this gave the talent going into the campaign a global flavour, reflects Alasdhair: “Shot in Mexico, produced in France and Canada, music in the Czech Republic, creatives all over the world. It was a very Coke thing. Everybody was all over the world, literally.”
When the campaign launched at the end of September, the response to this universal, if slightly quirky, campaign began. Early results came in from places ranging from India to the UK with high likeability scores. “Even in the Twitcher community (which of course is very specific), the likability is very high, so I think we've hit something really good here.”
To be specific, I make sure that Alasdhair means ‘Twitchers’ as in people who like streaming games and esports, not bird watching. It is. Although… “If you went to the royal ornithological society, they’d probably like it as well,” he says. “It's a message that even bird watchers would like. I think that's a good thing.
While it is possible for anyone to appreciate the message of ‘One Coke away from Each Other’, Alasdhair highlights the ways in which it’s ‘a pitch to gamers’, with Easter eggs scattered throughout that are codes that you can log in and play along with. “There's a whole world that is to be explored. It's not just a commercial.”
There’s also the side of the campaign that includes influencers from the streaming and esports communities - DJ Alan Walker, Team Liquid’s Aerial Powers and Average Jonas. “All their communities are very much into it,” says Alasdhair. “The Instagram feeds of all these guys are full of compliments about how ‘it’s great that you’re participating in this thing’. Making them part of the commercial, it's a very rare thing. In this way, I think it’s pretty new.”
Campaigns of this truly global scale are rare. And it’s even rarer to see something so ambitious in its tone and style. What’s more, BETC seems to have pulled it off with aplomb. “We’ll be working on more campaigns for Coke, in the near future,” says Alasdhair, “so stay with us.”