Coca-Cola Experiments with Isolation and Friendship in China

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Isolation and loneliness may seem like an odd foundation for a Coca-Cola campaign, but in China, the brand is aiming to bring the smile associated with Coke to a generation afflicted with such attributes as they try to find their way in suddenly booming metropolises.

Coca-Cola’s “Friendship Experiment” aims to capture moments of “happiness creation” by inviting “complete strangers to come together and share a moment of connection.” It’s an effort by Chinese photographer Kurt Tang to combat what he saw as the “dispiriting sense of isolation and loneliness” found today in China’s cities.

“We even date through virtual social networks instead of more intimate, human close-in-person communications,” Kurt Tang, the photographer and ‘Happiness Creator’ of the Friendship Experiment, told brandchannel. Tang’s photo and video collection, a project that used Coke to bring urbanites together, recently showed at the Fei Gallery in that same city. Notably, the photo exhibition does not contain Coke bottles or products, although some of the videos do.[more]

“Due to its devastating speed of development, these symptoms have hit Chinese urban inhabitants more aggressively and recklessly,” said Tang. “The very city space of Chinese cities have been severely, or in some cases, completely reshaped to the point that neither city locals nor migrants from the countryside are capable of adopting.”

“This optimistic message affects a gradual but very real improvement in the lives of all Chinese,” commented Martin Murphy, Managing Director for Global Brand Management of Ogilvy Shanghai. He sees Coke aiming for higher brand messaging ground across the nation, “aspiring not to be a marketing leader, but a cultural leader and contributor in China.”

Coke also recently donated 10 million RMB to the Sichuan earthquake relief, including 2.4 million bottles of water.

Like so many others, Coke’s pivot to connect emotionally with Chinese consumers stems from expectations that the nation will soon be its largest single market.

Emotional connections like the one aimed for in the “Friendship Experiment” are a hot new target for messaging. Both Oreo and Pepsi have—somewhat successfully—leveraged Chinese family values and cultural traditions as a way to forge emotional connections between brand and consumer. But tapping into what is seen as a negative in the hopes of bringing about a positive reaction is a brave new world for such a large brand.

Not that everyone is buying it. “Far from there being a sense of isolation and loneliness, I think it’s provably the case that Chinese city dwellers have never felt more connected to each other,” said Adam Minter, a longtime Shanghai-based columnist for Bloomberg World View and author of an upcoming book, Junkyard Planet, about globalized recycling including China.

Minter credits this closeness to the same social media and online life that Tang sees as a social wedge. “In the Coke photos, I don’t see lonely people suddenly coming together as friends. Rather, I see the real world manifestation of the virtual bonds that are quietly, but crucially, tying Chinese city dwellers closer together by the day,” added Minter.

One place China’s booming online lifestyle is seen as a positive for Tang and Coke is how the campaign is making use of social media as an amplifier. Ogilvy’s Murphy said he hopes the campaign will spark conversations with “questions such as ‘Are our self-imposed barriers towards strangers justified?’ and ‘Weren’t all friends strangers once?'”

Ultimately, maybe even ironically, this online discussion will occur on the same platform that Coke’s “experiment” was designed to judge.

“有创意,赞!” (“Very creative, great!”) wrote Weibo user “dudu兔.” That’s a start.

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