Coke Is the Latest Brand to Totally Misunderstand the True Value of Brand Advocates

by Mack Collier

Coke’s CMO Joseph Tripodi recently spoke on Facebook and the value of brand advocates at the Cannes Lions Festival of Creativity.  Here’s a quote from Mr. Tripodi:

“When you think of the continuum of a business, you go from local, to multi-country, to international, to global, but the highest order is network and network advantage is about having brand advocates telling stories for us.”

In other words, the scope of Coke’s vision when it comes to placing a value on their fans is that they can be walking billboards for the brand.  

Unbelievable.  And to be fair, almost every brand thinks this same way, Coke is hardly alone in this line of thinking.  The ‘have our customers tell our stories for us’ line is a rallying cry for marketers everywhere to explore the potential of connecting with their brand advocates.

Question:  When is the last time you heard Taylor Swift or Lady Gaga or Coldplay say that they love connecting with their fans because it gives their fans a chance to tell the rock star’s story for them?  Why aren’t the world’s most successful rock stars talking about how awesome it is to use their biggest fans as marketing vehicles?

Because most rock stars have an emotional relationship with their fans, while most brands have a transactional relationship with their customers.

The first thing that pops into most brand’s minds when it comes to their advocates is ‘How can we leverage this connection to result in a sale?’  The first thing that pops into most rock stars’ minds when it comes to their fans is ‘How can I show them that I appreciate them?’  And shockingly, rock stars cultivate fans with ease, fans that ironically go out and promote their favorite rock star and literally do become walking billboards for these artists.  While brands struggle to find customers that are willing to be their fans and promote them to their friends.

Rock stars cultivate an emotional relationship with their fans.  Ones where the rock star typically goes out of their way to communicate to the fan how much they appreciate and even love them.  As a result, this encourages the fan to appreciate the rock star even more, and to go out of their way to promote their favorite rock star to other fans.

So brands, if you truly want to cultivate fans of your brand, stop thinking about ways to leverage those connections into a sale.  Start thinking about ways you can reward and thank your fans for their support.  Treat them not as a new potential marketing channel for your brand, but as the special people that they are.

That’s how you win and cultivate fans for your brand.

PS:  Want more tips for creating fans of your brand?  Check out my new post at Paper.Li’s blog.

Jeremy Head July 11, 2012 at 9:57 am

The brand owner will say ‘Sure, but what’s the point of that if you can’t ultimately convert all that cost into sales?’ And they have a point… so maybe brands should just leave people alone in social spaces. If I was having a chat with a mate in the pub and drinking a coke that would be that. I wouldn’t crap on about how awesome the drink was or whatever. I think brand owners are getting way ahead of themselves with all this. People aren’t dumb. They’ll get what’s going on and move on. The moment the likes of Facebook and Twitter REALLY start to monetize people will vote with their feet.

Mack Collier July 11, 2012 at 10:09 am

Jeremy you’re right and brands CAN convert those fans into sales. How many marketers disguised as fans does Zappos have running around? But is that because Zappos treats their customers as if they were potential billboards for the brand, or do they strive to give them an amazing experience and do everything they can to appreciate them?

Rock stars create fans almost effortlessly, and I never hear one of them say ‘The real potential of connecting with your fans is that it gives them a chance to tell your story for you’.

This stuff ain’t rocket surgery. Fans want to be appreciated, not leveraged to generate a sale.

Sarah Kay Hoffman July 11, 2012 at 10:14 am

This is so true; so spot on. I think about this a lot, too, when brands reach out to bloggers and want them to promote their product, give it away on their blog, etc. without either:
A. Really understanding the blogger and their audience
B. Fairly compensating them

So many brands have made walking billboards out of fans.
And ps. LOVE the reference to rock stars you make. Perfect.

Mack Collier July 11, 2012 at 10:20 am

Sarah check out this interview that DJ did with PJ from King Arthur Flour –

Notice how PJ talks about how the brand leverages Facebook. They use it as a way to interact with their customers, asking them basic questions like ‘What’s your favorite cooking magazine?’ or ‘What’s the high temp where you are today?’ PJ said they treat it as sort of a free focus group, they get to learn more about their customers, plus it gives their customers a quick and easy way to connect with the brand, and each other.

By starting these quick and easy conversations, King Arthur Flour creates value for their customers PLUS they get a better understanding of who their customers are and how they use their product. Which also helps the brand. It’s a win-win, but it starts with the brand creating something of value for its customers and seeing them as something greater than simply a potential sale.

Christian Plewacki July 11, 2012 at 10:23 am

Very thought provoking. Now, allow me the pleasure of playing devil’s advocate (since we’re talking about advocates)…

Your comparison of brands to rock stars breaks down on many levels; first and foremost, brands are not rock stars. There are numerous distinctions between a rock star like Lady Gaga and a brand like Coke which inevitably have an impact on the business dynamics. While there is certainly such a thing as brand loyalty, the connection between a fan of a rock star and a satisfied customer of a brand are simply different – on emotional, psychological, and behavioral levels combined.

While I certainly agree with your advice to brands in the last paragraph of this article, the body of it seems rather one-sided, not taking into consideration the complexities of different kinds of business.

Especially for big brands, the bottom line is still the bottom line. For brands, whether B2B or B2C, time and resources spent on social media efforts are wasted if people are not entering the sales funnel as a result. Why not strive to achieve both – customer retention (building loyalty) and nurturing prospects (leading to sales)? You seem to be presenting a one size fits all method for business that, in my opinion, just isn’t realistic when you take into account all of the different factors, variables and dynamics across the wide spectrum of business.

Mack Collier July 11, 2012 at 10:44 am

Christian there’s no reason why brands can’t create fans just as passionate as any that rock stars have.

I’ve seen videos of fans crying that were about to meet Lady Gaga. I’ve seen videos of fans crying that attended the opening of an In-N-Out Burger location. Rock stars don’t have fans because of the products they create, they have fans because of HOW they relate to those fans. And rock stars want to make money just as much as brands do, their bottom line is still the same, their label sees to that.

Help me understand how brands are at a disadvantage that rock stars are not subject to when it comes to cultivating and connecting with their fans. What are rock stars doing that brands can’t or aren’t allowed to do?

Christian Plewacki July 11, 2012 at 11:02 am

I think the main difference is that the rock star IS the product, in a sense, whereas brands produce the product. Consumers drool over apple products in the same way that fans drool over rock stars. So, the sole task of the record label of the artist, as well as the marketers of the brand, is and will always be the same: to drive sales, which grow the company.

What you seem to be proposing is some sort of separate social media strategy. I don’t believe brands need a social media strategy. I believe social media should be integrated into the strategies that already exist, granted that they still work.

Just trying to be realistic.

Mack Collier July 11, 2012 at 11:17 am

Christian I think you made my point for me 😉 Consumers do drool over Apple products, so why does Apple have an army of fans, while Microsoft does not? Does Apple simply have some unfair advantage over the competition when it comes to creating fans, or are there certain things that this brand does that others do not? In much the same vein, why does Harley-Davidson have legions of passionate fans, while Kawasaki and Victory motorcycles do not?

And this really has nothing to do with social media. It’s about how brands can cultivate fans and connect with them. I don’t think it’s in the brand’s best interest to start out thinking about ways to leverage their fans into sales. I think it’s far more profitable for the brand to understand that if they connect with their fans and create value for them and reward them and appreciate them that THEN additional sales will result. Which impacts the business’ bottom line, right?

Brands needs to stop focusing on how THEY would benefit, and also consider how their fans would as well. If they can find a way for their fans to benefit, then the brand usually will as well.

Christian Plewacki July 11, 2012 at 11:27 am

You said, “Consumers do drool over Apple products, so why does Apple have an army of fans, while Microsoft does not?…In much the same vein, why does Harley-Davidson have legions of passionate fans, while Kawasaki and Victory motorcycles do not?”

Maybe this is because apple and Harley are superior in every way :) haha

I’m on board with the last paragraph of your response. Obviously brands need to focus on profitability, but if the point you’re trying to make is that the bar has been so far bent in that direction that outstanding customer experience has been neglected by and large, then we’re on the same page.

Mack Collier July 11, 2012 at 11:42 am

So if you are right that Apple and HD simply make products that are vastly superior (and many people would agree with you completely), then WHY are their products superior?

I would argue that it’s because both brands UNDERSTAND their customers and what they want. Actually I think Steve Jobs had a rare knack for understanding what his customers wanted NEXT, and could give it to them before anyone else.

But my overarching point is that it’s not about the brand understanding how it can leverage its customers to increase sales, it’s about the brand realizing that if it better understands its customers, that increased sales will be the likely result.

Which gets me back to rock stars because rock stars DO understand their fans and more importantly WANT to understand their fans and actually thrive off interacting with them. I think if more brands took such a deep interest in better understanding and connecting with their customers, they’d also get more fans.

Christian Plewacki July 11, 2012 at 11:47 am

Happy to be on the same page! Totally agree with every word of your last comment.

Thanks for clarifying.

Mike Stenger July 11, 2012 at 11:14 am

Definitely agree with what you’re saying Mack. In the case of Coca Cola though, they don’t have to have an emotional relationship with their customers, their customers already have an emotional relationship with them.

Mack Collier July 11, 2012 at 11:23 am

Mike that’s a good point, some customers are always going to have an emotional relationship with your brand, even if the brand’s mindset is to have a transactional relationship with its fans.

And to be fair, Coke is so huge that they will always have fans. What worries me is when smaller brands see Coke say that it’s all about leveraging fans to ‘tell our story for us’, they assume that’s how they should handle connecting with their fans.

And again the great irony here is that fans DO want to promote their favorite brands and DO want to tell their favorite brands’ stories, and often do. But they also want to feel that the brand appreciates them for doing so. As long as they do, they will be the best marketing the brand could hope for.

But if they ever feel that the brand doesn’t care about them or only does as long as they can be ‘leveraged’ for an additional sale, many of them will walk.

Rachel Kay July 11, 2012 at 12:59 pm

Interesting post, and I’m finding myself agreeing with a lot of Christian’s comments. I think the term “walking billboards,” turns a meaningful concept like peer-to-peer endorsement into something negative. It’s not. In fact, it’s been proven time and time again to be one of the most effective and authentic means of marketing. It starts with creating the best possible experience and service, and if done successfully, get customers singing a brand’s praises.
One personal example. I get flat tires about once a month and every time I do, I go to Discount Tire and they fix my tire, charge me nothing, and give me a huge smile. Not only would I never buy tires anywhere else, but I sing their praises to anyone who will listen, and I tweet about how much I love them to my followers on Twitter. There’s a high likelihood that someone who’s heard me talk about how much I like them will remember, and go there when they need a new tire. Was their intent just to make me happy? Of course not. They are hoping I buy from them in the future and send business to them when I can. It’s a good relationship that works for Discount Tire and for me. You know, marketing. :)

In fairness, rockstars become successful in the same way, they just don’t typically talk about it in marketing conferences. One of my coworkers told me I had to listen to this amazing song by Gotye. So I did, and loved it. Very similar situation!

Christian Plewacki July 11, 2012 at 1:04 pm

Very good points, Rachel.

And the plot thickens…


Mack Collier July 11, 2012 at 1:51 pm

Rachel if I have given you or anyone else the impression that I’m not a believer in the power of word of mouth marketing, please let me apologize profusely. I’m not knocking word of mouth marketing, I am knocking brands that seem to think that the only benefit they can get from connecting with their most passionate customers is to get them to promote them to other customers. When brands focus only on getting more sales, it changes how they interact with customers, and the experience they provide.

In your example, Discount Tires is after your business. But as you say, they know that if they take care of your flat for free, and with a smile, that the odds are that when it comes time to get a new set of tires, that you’ll give them your business. And they also understand that if anyone else mentions getting a flat, you’ll probably mention how Discount Tires fixes your flats for free, and with a smile. Discount Tires knows if they give you a great experience now, that they’ll probably earn your future business. Discount Tires is focused on getting business from you, but it’s not their ONLY focus.

But let’s try this scenario on for size: What if after you get your next flat fixed for free, the manager comes up to you and says ‘Ok Rachel, you’re ready to go! But before you do…you know you’ve been coming in here for a while now and getting your flats fixed for free. That’s a service we typically charge at least $25 for, but we’ve been happy to do it for you for free. In fact our records show that over the last 24 months we’ve fixed 24 flats for you, all for free! So that’s $600 worth of business that we’ve given you for free! Now, we do appreciate that $400 set of tires you bought last November, but…I guess what I’m saying is that well we’re in business to make money, and right now, we’ve lost $200 on you. So in order to keep giving you those free flat repairs, I need to be able to show my boss that you’re bringing in more business than we are losing. So what I’ve done is I’ve created a book of coupons that you can give your friends for discounts on our tires and services! We’ll keep track of how many your friends redeem and who knows, if you bring enough business in here, we might be able to keep fixing your flats for free! Have a great day!’

If the manager at Discount Tires told you that, it would be incredibly short-sighted and it would probably cost them your future business, right? Because the manager would be communicating to you that he wants a strictly transactional relationship with you. As long as you can bring in more sales that they ‘lose’ to you in free flat repairs, he wants you as a customer. Unfortunately, too many businesses have this mindset, and cannot see the value of embracing their fans.

Rachel Kay July 11, 2012 at 4:05 pm

Mack – Thanks for your response. Just a couple of thoughts/questions:
– You say that “Discount Tires is focused on getting business from you, but it’s not their ONLY focus.” What do you think the other focus is? I’m convinced that if this strategy had not proven to drive sales they would stop doing it. I don’t think there is any other reasonable reason to given people free services. I know I don’t provide my company’s services for free unless there’s the potential for new business (unless it’s charity).
– I understand the scenario, but truth be told that’s never happened to me before. Has it happened to you? I’m having a hard time understanding the correlation to the post and my comment because Discount Tire has never done that to me, and I don’t believe Coke has done it to it’s clients. I think I’d have an easier time understanding Coke’s mistake if I had an example of them doing that to their customers rather than just a comment they made to a group of marketers. Or I might embrace the concept a little better if we had a real life example from any company.

I think this is an awesome conversation you’ve started and I hope it keeps going! I just challenge you to talk more about what the end goals are outside of business building and sales driving for interacting with customers. I think it’s romantic to believe that there’s a reason for building a relationship with clients outside of business goals but I just don’t think that’s realistic.

Mack Collier July 11, 2012 at 6:40 pm

Rachel my guess is that Discount Tires knows that giving loyal customers freebies on cheap services will probably improve customer loyalty and the chance that those loyal customers will promote and advocate the store to other customers. I think Discount Tire’s MAIN goal is getting more business, and this is almost every business’ goal. But I think they are doing things like giving some loyal customers like you freebies on cheaper services because they think these goals (higher customer satisfaction and loyalty) will feed into their MAIN goal, getting more business.

I think if Discount Tires’s ONLY goal was getting more business, they probably wouldn’t want to give ANY business away. Because they wouldn’t see that supporting other goals (like improved customer loyalty through freebies) will funnel back to their MAIN goal, getting more sales.

And the ultimate reason why I want more brands to cultivate fans like Discount Tires is with you is because, as you said, it leads to more business. I’m obviously not explaining myself very well because we both seem to be arguing the same side of the coin.

Tom July 11, 2012 at 1:35 pm

Well said!

Davina K. Brewer July 11, 2012 at 1:36 pm

Great discussion guys, think Christian and Rachel made some good points, both about the difference in examples and the context of the statement. The Apple example – such a standard – is maybe a little misused here; is there a less social, responsive brand? No focus groups, no cheeky Tweeters, etc. As you say Mack, they’ve made their bones by seeing what’s next, by creating what they’ve decided customers will want and need. They have brand advocates b/c they make really nice stuff; their products are their marketing.

Which brings me back to Lady Gaga and boy howdy do rock stars (and other ‘personality’ type professionals) need to make a living too. I remember a charity sports even, the athletes were so-so w/ the fans, but the musicians really took time to work the crowd – b/c they see that connection. Only IIRC, there’ve been stories about how despite all the fans and engagement and advocate, her concert tour in fact did not made money?

My only other quibble: “increased sales will be the likely result.” Most businesses can’t bank on likely, they want guaranteed results – which we both know, good luck with that. I agree w/ your theme – it shouldn’t be about using the customers. It’s PR and CRM and not asking what they can do for you; customers are already doing, they’re buying and even recommending your stuff. You need to ask more about what you can do for them. FWIW.

Christian Plewacki July 11, 2012 at 1:46 pm

Davina said, “They [Apple] have brand advocates b/c they make really nice stuff; their products are their marketing.”

A very good point. In all reality, Apple could probably remain mostly aloof and, as long as they continually kick out awesome products, they’d still have an ever-growing number of advocates. Let’s remember that a customer being satisfied with a product is different from a customer being satisfied with an experience with the brand that manufactured the product.

Davina K. Brewer July 11, 2012 at 1:55 pm

I’ve got this crazy theory of businesses that are ‘marketing-proof’ – the Big Chain or Only One in Town, so they’re not really effected by the marketing, one way or the other. The working conditions of Apple manufacturers in China makes for bad PR, doesn’t hurt sales. Exxon survived the Valdez and BP is still around, meanwhile RiM had and then lost BlackBerry fans, not to better marketing – to better products. FWIW.

Mike Schaffer July 11, 2012 at 2:57 pm


Love this. The way to success for brands of all sizes is to create an emotional relationship.

Products change. Logos change. People change. Emotions are a much tougher nut to crack.

I’ve been thinking about bumper stickers lately. The fact that you care enough about something to put it on your car for YEARS is an utmost emotional connection. You devalue a valuable piece of property to utilize the real estate.

If you, as a brand, can get people to put a bumper sticker on their car, you’re succeeding.

Mack Collier July 11, 2012 at 3:02 pm

‘The Bumper Sticker Rule’? :) I love it!

Mack Collier July 11, 2012 at 3:05 pm

Awesome discussion here, thanks so much everyone. And the best part is there have been several ‘I’m not sure I agree’ comments. I love that, because it expands the conversation, and gets everyone thinking about both/all sides. The topic of how brands can delight and connect with their customers is incredibly important, and I think it deserves all the space we can give it. Thanks y’all 😉

Her Social Network July 11, 2012 at 3:08 pm

So wise really. I think when companies feel that they are “BIG Enough” or get that mentality they forget the value of paying it forward, because they don’t think they need to anymore. Great post!

Robyn Wright of July 11, 2012 at 3:22 pm

Spot on Mack! While I am approached by many brands, it is those brands that I already use and really love that I work hardest for. Even without a working relationship with a brand I promote them. A good example is actually Coke – I am a Coke drinker and I love it and I tweet about Coke, drink Coke, take pics of Coke, etc. quite regularly. I do this only because I like Coke, not because I’m trying to reach them to work with them or any other reason – I’m just a loyal fan.

Tamera Bennett July 11, 2012 at 3:23 pm

Great conversation. Just thought I would add a few thoughts.
While the Lady Gaga’s and Taylor Swift’s of the world are talking about the emotional relationship, you can bet their record labels and marketing teams are talking about how to leverage that emotional relationship via social networking to make money. The Rock Star business has just been a little more savvy in how it’s presented to the end consumer. If you check the panels offered at SXSW or MIDEM you will see that the business side of the music business is having the same conversations as Coke. Music fans do tell an emotional story via social networking. The term #grammy was tweeted 1.2 million times during the 2012 Grammy awards. The term #adele had 340K tweets during the show. Music fans are huge brand advocates.

Mike Schaffer July 11, 2012 at 3:29 pm

Yes – the music industry is having similar conversations, but I see it is a bit different. The labels are looking to capitalize on the emotional relationship.

Most everyone has a band they saw before they were stars and truly believed in. You told EVERYONE that would listen about the band. You evangelized for them. Those connections drove the bands to a prominent status where the execs can talk about monetizing.

To me, then, the music industry version is much more reactionary than Coke’s stated mission.

Mack Collier July 11, 2012 at 3:31 pm

Tamera you are right, Taylor is her own manager and I’m pretty sure Gaga has her own team handling her marketing. Most successful rock stars are also VERY savvy marketers. They do appreciate their fans and love them, but they also know how to leverage those connections to reach their business goals.

Kasey Skal July 12, 2012 at 2:23 pm

Unfoerunately it’s always about the sale. It is about making fans walking billboards. That’s what brands are here for — to create relationships that end in sales and profit.

Linda Sherman July 13, 2012 at 9:33 pm

Excellent discussion. I recall seeing a Coke marketing executive (from Atlanta) speak in Tokyo years ago. They said that fans had created Facebook Pages for them. A local vendor called Puka Dogs enjoyed that and I’m sure others have as well. But it seems like the way the Facebook Page wall is set up now, that the brand or at least one entity really needs to initiate and sustain. And for sure Coca Cola has taken over their Facebook Page.

andreibuspro July 15, 2012 at 4:01 am

Based on what I’ve understand on this post, Branding is like creating a “mini me”. Just like shadows that follows wherever you go. Thanks a bunch for the insights.

Jose Palomino July 20, 2012 at 3:00 pm

Wise, takeaway words from a short-yet-poignant article. This article does a fantastic job of comparing the way BRANDS treat their “fans” (or customers), and they way rockstars treat their fans. Not so surprisingly, because rockstars want to cultivate their relationship with their fans by just showing them how much they’re appreciated, their fans become “walking billboards” for them. Now brands like Coca-Cola try to produce the same effect, but the problem is their customers are always the bottom line.

Barrett Rossie August 1, 2012 at 12:01 am

Mack, I love the rock star analogy. Maybe it’s not perfect, but pretty darn close. Change it to country stars — they work the crowd like crazy AND sell product in the process. The key thing is the emotional connection which gets overlooked way too often.

And not to pick on Coke, but I wrote a post last week on a clumsy experience I had with them on the edge of the social realm. Some of the comments really nailed what was missing: “commercial” rules are different than “social” rules — what’s acceptable in one world is not acceptable in another. You have to have some empathy, I guess, or you can’t really be social, whether in person or online. In case you’re interested it’s at:

My first time here, it won’t be my last. Thanks!

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