Depending on how you look at it, Chris Lowe either has one of the most enviable jobs in the brand business or one of the scariest — or maybe both. The 14-year Coke veteran took over as chief marketing officer last year for one of the world's most revered icons in its largest market, North America. For at least a decade, every marketer who has held Lowe's job has struggled to come up with a marketing campaign that would equal the heralded work of the past. Everyone remembers "I'd like to buy the world a Coke" — which launched in 1969 — but recent spots have been less memorable. That might explain why Coke recently announced that it was switching its ad agency of record for creative work from McCann-Erickson to Berlin Cameron/Red Cell, the agency behind its new campaign. Lowe, 50, is in the hot seat as he tries to put Coke back on track. In the words of Coke's new campaign, it's time to get real.
Critics say that Coke's recent campaigns haven't lived up to Coke's great advertising tradition. What's it like living with those expectations?
It's really hard. Successful campaigns have a way of growing even bigger in people's minds. But you can't focus on that. You have to believe that the communication you have today is right. You hope that this one will be the next great one.
So, is "Real" the next great one?
Let me walk you through how you birth one of these things. There's the communication strategy that you want to put across. You test it with consumers for validity and resonance. Then you take that core meaning and make it come alive with advertising. Then you take it back to consumers to test it again — sort of hedging your bets. Then you air it, and then you do post-testing: Did they get the central idea? After all that, the ultimate test is going to be how successful it is in the marketplace. It's premature to say whether "Real" is the next great one.
I am optimistic about its potential.
Can the brand's iconic status become a branding straitjacket?
You can never betray the core values of the brand, but you can work to make those values fresh and relevant. If you can't speak to people in these times, then you do become an old icon. Our management prods us to explore the boundaries.
"Real" already has its critics. How do you respond to negative reviews?
It depends on whom you talk to. We have gotten favorable responses to "Real." There are certain aspects of the campaign that were unexpected, especially the work we're doing with the youth market. But the proof will be in the pudding with consumers. We are seeing positive-persuasion rates that are higher than the category norm.
Coke has had other problems in recent years. How do you protect the brand? You have to focus on the basic relationship with the consumer and the highest product quality. That's about all you can focus on. We've been in this business for more than 100 years, and with all that has transpired with this company, well, that formula has stood us in good stead.
A version of this article appeared in the April 2003 issue of Fast Company magazine.