Mystery lures teens in Coke ad campaign

Teaser: An imaginative Coca-Cola marketing campaign is luring computer-savvy teen-agers with free voice mail accounts and discounts.

June 02, 1999|By June Arney | June Arney,SUN STAFF

Coca-Cola Co. is hoping that the coming long, lazy days of summer will boost sales by creating new interest among teen-agers in guzzling Coca-Cola Classic.

And to that end, the company is offering a little incentive: 45 million free voice mail accounts for America's teens.

In the Baltimore area, selected teens have received the voice mail offer along with the chance to use a credit-card-size Coke card for discounts at the Baltimore Zoo, Orioles games and the Family Golf Center in Glen Burnie.

Estimated to cost at least $40 million, the national campaign comes as Coke continues to battle rival Pepsi Cola Co. for market share and as sagging economies overseas have hurt business. Coke's first-quarter sales were worse than last year's quarter, with profit down 13 percent.

It also comes as many people are turning away from colas in favor of alternative drinks, according to W. Ronald Lane, a professor of advertising at the University of Georgia.

"If people go entirely to the waters and the teas and the new age drinks, then what happens to them?" Lane asked. "Cola sales have to some extent been flat as sales have moved toward natural juices or water. If they don't get kids interested in colas early, as they mature there's the chance they won't drink as much cola as their parents."

Unlike many high-powered corporate campaigns, this effort by Coke started out shrouded in mystery. The first efforts to pique consumer interest didn't even reveal the company name.

A series of mysterious letters "iydkydg" began to appear in a simple Web page address on billboards, at movie theaters and in magazines. The Web page received hundreds of thousands of hits from teens speculating on its significance.

"We wanted kids to create a buzz about what the brand was all about before they even knew Coke was behind it," said Diana Garza, a spokeswoman for Coke based in Atlanta.

Only later did it become clear that the mysterious letters stood for: "If you don't know, you don't go," and that the accompanying circle logo with five dots evenly spaced around it was the imprint of a 20-ounce bottle of Coke when the bottom of the bottle is wet.

Then Coke mailed out voice mail information and Coke discount cards to teens identified as influential with their peers, with extras to pass on to friends.

The voice mail accounts use toll-free numbers, but teens need to purchase a 20-ounce Coke and retrieve the access code inside the bottle cap to post subsequent messages. Each access code expires after one use of the voice mail system.

"It begins to seed the behavior that `This is cool because I got it from my buddy, and this is cool because it's just for teens,' " Garza said.

Coke is not alone in its passion to find new ways to reach young people, said Lane, the University of Georgia professor. "This generation is very marketing savvy," he said. "They don't like to think they're taken in by advertising."

The campaign, which runs through August, builds on last year's Coke card campaign, with the added voice mail component -- a result of consumer research showing that the telephone is the preferred way for teens to connect.

It is too early for results from this year's campaign, Garza said. Last year, 65 million cards were distributed, with each used two to three times a day on average, Garza said.

Local bottlers negotiate the Coke card coupon offers at places teens might want to spend time and money, resulting in about 250 versions customized for various markets.

For instance, the Baltimore Zoo offers a free admission after the purchase of three admissions and the presentation of a Coke card with the label from a 20-ounce Coke bottle. Partnering with Coke allows the zoo to reach an audience it doesn't have the funds to go after, said Maureen O'Brien, director of marketing for the zoo.

"We thought it was quite an original idea, and a good way to reach teen-agers," O'Brien said. "Our visitors tend to skew young."

The Golf Center, participating for the second year, sees an average of two coupons a day. Customers who present a Coke card with the purchase of a 20-ounce Coke receive a round of mini golf at half price, or three free batting cage tokens with the purchase of six, or a free bucket of golf balls with the purchase of a bucket of equal size.

"We did it last year, and it probably brought in 50 new people," said Dustin Sears, the center's site manager. "A lot of people come in who you've never seen before, and then they become customers for life."

Pub Date: 6/02/99

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