Share a Coke and a Word: How Coca-Cola Captured Millennials Through Word of Mouth Marketing

By sharing a Coke, thousands of people have unknowingly provided Coca-Cola with free marketing. In an effort to appeal to millennial consumers, Coca-Cola printed names on its cans with the hashtag, #ShareaCoke. The global campaign brought people together by facilitating the thought of a friend while walking by Coca-Cola products. When consumers see their names or their friends’ names on a Coca-Cola can, they are more likely to purchase it.

History of the Campaign

The #ShareaCoke campaign began in Australia in 2011 and then moved throughout the world (Moye 2014). The campaign made its way to the United States in 2014. In Australia, the campaign started with generic terms and 150 of the country’s most popular first names. Because the campaign started with so few names, Coca-Cola emphasized purchasing the product for someone else, hence the term “share” a Coke. After the initial launch, the company then allowed consumers to choose the next names to be released (Moye 2014).

Figure 1

After Australia, the campaign moved to New Zealand, Asia, and then to Europe in April 2013 (Hepburn). Each country promoted “sharing a Coke” in a different way, but the campaign’s overall success can be attributed to personalization. For example, in the UK, Coca-Cola generated buzz around the birth of the royal baby (Moye 2014). Once consumers in the UK market found out about the campaign, personalization became the key factor in driving sales increase.

Figure 2- @emmaroberts on Instagram

Celebrities such as Emma Roberts (see Figure 2) became opinion leaders to initiate buzz, but the marketing push soon turned to consumers and their relationship with the company’s product. Executives at Coca-Cola hoped that the #ShareaCoke campaign would be a success, but did not prepare for how much of a success the campaign would actually turn out to be. After an initial release in 2014, Coca-Cola released 1,000 more names in the United States (Moye 2015). Coca-Cola also allowed consumers to order cans on a website, which made it easy for consumers to find their name. At this point, the excitement of searching everywhere to find one’s name ended as the campaign started to settle down. Instead, Coca-Cola executives realized that they could drive more revenue by providing the consumer with the desired item: a personalized Coca-Cola can.

Then, in April 2016, Coca-Cola re-launched the campaign by using song lyrics (seen in figure 3) instead of first names.

Figure 3- shareacoke.com

Coca-Cola in Society

As a beverage product, Coca-Cola plays a large cultural role in many countries. Americans, as well as consumers in other countries, love Coca-Cola. Roberto Ferdman, a food economist journalist for the Washington Post, states that Coca-Cola is “designed to sell happiness. They’re not selling a drink. But on an emotional level you attach to it” (2015). As a brand, Coca-Cola has a classic image, which encourages consumers to drink Coke products.

Figure 4- @ciarabaxendale on Twitter

Naturally, the #ShareaCoke campaign became part of social interaction. Immediately after the campaign launched, people who found their names shared the personalized Coke products on social media. Because the campaign uses a hashtag, users can share the campaign directly. Hashtags also allow the “spreadability,” a term used by Henry Jenkins, Sam Ford and Joshua Green (2013), to be measured. As of April 2016, over 600,000 pictures were shared using the hashtag #ShareaCoke on Instagram. By using personal names and spreadable terms, the campaign initiated conversations around the Coca-Cola product.

The Rise of Millennials

The #ShareaCoke campaign is important to look at because it is one of the first campaigns where a major corporation switched their main target audience from baby boomers to millennials. Richard Fry (2016), senior researcher at Pew Research Center reports that on April 25, 2016, millennials officially outnumbered baby boomers. This generational shift meant that Coca-Cola needed to attract a new consumer segment in order remain leaders of the beverage market

Coca-Cola already held the brand loyalty of baby boomers, but the company realized that they need to shift their focus on the next largest generation (Moye 2015). By using popular names on products, Coca-Cola attempts to show millennials that they care for their audience (Nguyen 2015). This is the first step in building a life long relationship with millennial consumers.

This paper explores how customization of Coca-Cola products have specifically impacted millennials. By finding out why millennials enjoy “sharing” a Coke so much, marketers can understand the company’s campaign tactics, as well as learn more about millennial culture and how to best appeal to them. This can help guide corporate decisions related to what marketing strategies to focus on in the future.

Millennials

We must first understand who millennials are in order to understand the campaign. According to the United States Census Bureau (2015), “millennials” are people born from 1980–2000. As the first demographic to grow up with the internet and new forms of communication such as text messaging, this generation is unique. Dr. Lynn Connaway and Dr. Marie Radford describe millennials as “impatient, practical, results oriented, multi-taskers, with non-linear communication patterns” (2007). Knowing who millennials are makes understanding Coca-Cola’s thought process in their #ShareaCoke campaign much easier.

Connaway and Radford continue to say that “millennials prefer more information choices and more selectivity, personalization and customization of information, as well as convenience” (2007). The #ShareaCoke campaign appealed to this by using personalization and convenience.

Consumers could find #ShareaCoke products through many different modes of distribution which became convenient for consumers. Consumers found the product in stores, ordered it online, or customized it using kiosks. The most convenient way for consumers to buy the product was in stores. Coca-Cola appealed to this by using the most common names, making it most convenient for the largest amount of people (see figure 5). However, for people who could not find their name, ordering the customized product online was easy. Coca-Cola also went around to college campuses and malls with kiosks where people could customize their own can, no matter the name.

Figure 5

This campaign’s success is impressive for the small amount of money the campaign cost Coca-Cola (Fulgoni 2015). When consumers found friends’ names, they shared a picture on social media. The product also became the topic of many conversations as Coca-Cola used more generic terms, such as “friend,” “mom,” and “superstar.” This allowed for word of mouth (WOM) marketing, which, once initiated, was free to Coca-Cola. The combination of customization and buzz-worthiness made the campaign successful without needing to spend too much money.

Directly before this campaign, which started in 2011, Coca-Cola’s slogan read “Open Happiness” (History). So, the #ShareaCoke campaign tells consumers to share happiness with others. This concept allows consumers to share the product, which is supposed to equate to happiness, with those they love. Whether or not buyers actually do this, an emotional response can be invoked, which helps consumers develop a deeper relationship to Coca-Cola (Nguyen 2015). The consumer’s name in Coca-Cola writing connects the consumer to the product, creating more of a customer loyalty.

Word of Mouth Marketing (WOM)

The campaign is a perfect example of WOM marketing, which is seen as the most effective way to reach millennials. Millennials are typically skeptical of information that comes from companies, so it is important to create content that they will want to share on their own.

As Henry Jenkins, Provost’s professor of Communications at the University of Southern California, Sam Ford, and Joshua Green say, “success in the stickiness model has always ultimately depended on audience activity that happens away from the site- in other words, from spreadability” (2013).

Campaigns stick with people when the roles of marketers and audience are not distinct. Instead, these two roles should work together so that audience members become marketers, which is what happens in WOM marketing. In order for WOM marketing to occur, the topic must be spreadable.

In order for WOM marketing to be successful, brands must be authentic and transparent. To be more specific, one type of WOM marketing called viral marketing, or marketing that is designed to be spread from one consumer to another, is extremely valuable (Nguyen 2015).

In order for viral marketing to occur, the content must be spreadable. Spreadability “refers to the potential- both technical and cultural- for audiences to share content for their own purposes” (Jenkins, Ford & Green, 2013). If companies want consumers to share a message, it is necessary to make it something that consumers would share regardless of the message. For example, if a company video contained funny content, people would watch and share because people enjoy humor.

#ShareaCoke initiated WOM marketing by producing spreadable content. When people share a Coke with others, they also spread the word. Even if consumers did not share actual Cokes, no matter the reason, they could still customize an online Coke and share it with others. So, even if customers are not buying the product themselves, they are still passing the message along to those who may (Nguyen 2015).

Coca-Cola’s international presence is part of what made the campaign so successful. This is because “consumers would like to see their name attached with an iconic brand than an unknown brand” (Nguyen 2015). By creating a link between the consumer and the iconic product by printing the consumer’s name, Coca-Cola is appealing to young adult consumers.

In addition, #ShareaCoke spread because Coca-Cola quietly announced the campaign and only released a limited number of names at the beginning of the campaign. By quietly announcing the campaign, consumers could “discover the campaign on their own terms and take ownership of it” (Fulgoni 2015). People are more likely to share something if they feel as though they are the first ones to know. So by allowing consumers to find the campaign by themselves, they immediately shared the campaign online with friends. Additionally, because Coca-Cola only released so many names, consumers became very excited and proud once they found their names so they almost had to buy the product (Nguyen 2015).

Sharing: A Call to Action

Additionally, the campaign became successful because it calls the consumer to action. The word “share” urges the consumer to do something. Not only does the word “share” make the consumer feel the need to actually go to the store to buy a physical Coca-Cola, but it also puts the idea of the consumer buying a coke for someone else in their head. Buying a Coke for yourself is something that is natural, but Coca-Cola cleverly made consumers also think of buying Coca-Cola products for others (Nguyen 2015). So, when a consumer is at the store and sees a friend’s name or a bottle that says “Mom” they are more likely to buy it.

Importance of the Campaign

Exploring what made this campaign so successful in reaching millennials is important because it is is relatively new and is a great example of WOM marketing. Corporations have become so used to marketing to baby boomers that it is necessary to find new methods to appeal to the new largest generation: millennials. Marketing campaigns are all about communication and one of the biggest ways that separates millennials from other generations is the way that they communicate. Millennials are the first generation to be more accessible through social media and email rather than by phone call or even face-to-face communication (Radford 2007).

If the #ShareaCoke campaign never existed, Coca-Cola’s sales would not have increased by nearly as much. Consumers went crazy over this campaign and bought the product when they found their name, bought one for their friend when customers saw someone else’s name, and increased online orders from people who felt left out.

More importantly, without this campaign, Coca-Cola would still have a disconnect from millennials. While millennials do drink the product, the brand never really connected with this generation. Because of this, millennials could easily replace Coca-Cola products with any other brand (Nguyen 2015). However, this campaign made millennials feel like the brand cared about them and evoked positive feelings, which they will remember for years to come. By securing millennials with the brand, Coca-Cola will continue to see results from this campaign.

The #ShareaCoke campaign will pave the way for other corporations so it is important to find out from millennials why they reacted so positively to #ShareaCoke. To do this, we must find out the motivations consumers had when sharing a Coke.

To analyze how millennials actually responded to the #ShareaCoke campaign, I created a survey. I then emailed the survey to friends and posted it on my Facebook page. The survey, which received 75 responses, asked millennials questions about how they responded to the campaign’s call to action, which was to share a Coke. The survey opened on April 4, 2016, closed on April 11, 2016, and was administered through Google Forms. This allowed me to send out the link to different groups of millennials.

I first asked “How old are you?” to ensure that responses only came from millennials. Any other responses were thrown out. In order to ensure the precision of responses, I used a combination of multiple choice and short answer responses so that I could tell whether or not people took the survey seriously. Using an anonymous survey also adds to the precision, as people do not have to worry about being judged for their answers. I gathered a wide range of responses which resulted in representative data.

Survey Results

The survey asked millennials questions about their usage, behaviors, and feelings towards the product and brand.

Figure 6
Figure 7
Figure 8- Responses to “How did it feel when you found your name?”
Figure 9 Responses to “How do you feel about the Coca-Cola brand?”
Figure 10
Figure 11
Figure 12
Figure 13
Figure 14

Follow Ups:

From my initial survey, I created follow up questions to ask participants who participated in the #ShareaCoke campaign. These follow up interviews allowed me to explore my research questions further as respondents could explain the reason behind their consumer behavior.

Helen Leahy, 20, College Student

Last summer while on her lunch break from work, 20-year-old Helen Leahy made a trip to CVS to pick up some items. While walking by the cooler section, she found her name on a Diet Coke can.

“I couldn’t refrain from getting it,” said Helen. “Helen is a super uncommon name so I felt really special. I had to buy it. Helen is such an old grandma name. The fact that is is on a Coke bottle is awesome. You know how when you’re younger you always try to find your name on souvenirs? I could never find my name so this is the first time this kind of thing had ever happened.”

A few weeks after buying a Diet Coke with her name on it, Helen shared a Coke with one of her friends:

“I saw one with a friend’s name on it and I was going to see her later that day so I obviously had to buy that one too. She was really excited when I gave it to her. She thought it was the coolest thing.”

Jeremy Lonnman, 20, College Student

Jeremy Lonnman, 20, bonded with new friends over a #ShareaCoke can. At the beginning of his freshman year of college, he attended a cookout sponsored by his school designed to help students start to bond. After getting his food, he went to grab a Coke, recalling how he “picked one up, and it said ‘legend.’ I immediately knew who I had to give it to,” he said.

Because it was early in his freshman year, Jeremy was still bonding with his new suitemates. One of his suitemates, he recalls, always said that things were legendary. “I looked at the Coke and it said ‘#ShareaCoke with a legend.’ I saw it and instantly thought of him so I walked over and gave it to him.” When Jeremy gave his suitemate the Coke, the two of them and their six other suitemates cracked up. The Coke helped bond Jeremy with his new friends and created a memory for them.

Lyrics

While I was in the process of collecting data, Coca-Cola re-launched the #ShareaCoke campaign using song lyrics instead of names. Coca-Cola released a list of all of the lyrics that they used, which I collected to analyze them. I utilized Voyant to create a link graph.

Figure 15- Link graph showing what words are connected in #ShareaCoke lyrics (shareacoke.com)
Figure 16- Word cloud showing most common hashtags in Instagram using #ShareaCoke

I also obtained 1,000 Instagram posts using the #ShareaCoke hashtag with the captions and hashtags that accompanied them. I used tagcrowd to see what hashtags were the most commonly used with #ShareaCoke. (Data was obtained directly through Instagram’s search API on April 25, 2016).

The survey results give an insight as to how millennials responded to the #ShareaCoke campaign. As seen in Figure 6, 56% of millennial respondents did not drink any soda in an average week. However, even though responders do not drink much soda, Figure 7 shows that 56% of responders searched for their names on a Coke product. This shows that even people who do not drink soda, meaning that they also do not purchase soda, still searched for a personalized Coke product. Most people who found their name bought the product, even if they do not drink much soda. For example, when Helen (from the follow up interviews) saw her name on a Coke bottle, she had to buy it, even though she was not originally planning on buying a soda.

Clearly, as evidenced in Figure 9, millennials, even non-soda drinkers, love the Coca- Cola brand. Other than some people commenting on the poor nutrition of soda, all responses to the question, “What do you think about the Coca-Cola brand” were positive.

The positive attitudes toward the brand and the fact that non-soda drinkers searched for their name even if they do not drink soda makes a major statement for Coca-Cola. The brand is iconic and people think that it cool to have their name associated with the brand. Figure 8 shows how people reacted when they found their name. “great!!!! I was so happy and felt important” said one responder.

In addition, Figure 12 shows that only 28.8% of participants would not consider customizing a Coke. This is a low percentage, showing that people want their name associated with an iconic brand. Figure 12 also shows that more people would customize a can for others rather than for themselves. Additionally, Figure 14 shows that out of the five participants who have customized a Coke, four people made it for someone else rather than themselves. This shows that Coca-Cola successfully got the sharing aspect of the campaign across. This is much more valuable to them than people keeping a Coke for themselves because of WOM marketing. By sharing a Coke, they are spreading the word about Coca-Cola and facilitating a relationship between the receiver and the brand when they see their name in the Coca-Cola font.

Only 21.6%, or 17 participants, said they actually found their name on a Coca-Cola product, as seen in Figure 10. However, Figure 13 shows that 25 of survey respondents shared a Coke with family or friends. Clearly, there is more of a chance of consumers finding friends and family members’ names rather than their own. Not only does this result in more sales for Coca-Cola, but it also assists in WOM marketing, showing the importance of Coca-Cola to emphasize sharing.

From Sharing Names to Sharing Songs

While Coca-Cola switched from using names to song lyrics in April 2016, the same concept remained. There are millions of song lyrics that Coca-Cola could have chosen from, but they strategically picked a certain 84. Figure 15 shows how all of the words are linked together. The words “I’m,” “like,” and “love” have the thickest connecting lines, meaning that these words are the most connected. This shows that Coca-Cola has succeeded in personalization. The lyrics emphasize sharing, which, in turn, works with WOM marketing.

Millennials are connecting over the #ShareaCoke campaign. The #ShareaCoke hashtag is huge on Instagram, which is a social media platform most used by millennials. Figure 16 shows the most common hashtags used in photos shared with the #ShareaCoke hashtag. Many of the most used tags include asking for a follow or like. “Follow,” “shareforshare,” “morefollowers,” and “shoutoutforshoutout” are all prominent. Millennials are connecting with each other by sharing photos of Coca-Cola products.

Coca-Cola won over millennials by using WOM marketing. Other corporations have started using WOM marketing too, but the way that Coca-Cola initiated it is what made the campaign so special. They used personalization, something that millennials love, to encourage them to share with a friend. By sharing a tangible object, it encouraged others to drink the product and created a deeper brand loyalty. As 16–36 year olds, millennials are in the stage of their life where they can be extremely influenced in their buying habits. These habits will then most likely stick with them for the rest of their lives.

For further research, keeping up with how people share the #ShareaCoke bottles with lyrics would be interesting. The personalization of names has ended, but because so many of the lyrics emphasize a positive message from one person to the other, it is almost like a personal message anyway. Music is something that usually unites people so it will be interesting to see how millennials react to this.

In addition, the newest generation, pluralists, are getting to the age where they can make purchasing decisions for themselves, too. Researching how pluralists are reacting to the campaign can keep Coca-Cola, as well as other major corporations looking to reach this new audience, one step ahead.

The #ShareaCoke campaign is arguably one of the best recent campaigns. Initiating WOM marketing is not easy, but Coca-Cola accomplished it flawlessly. They researched their audience well, which was the key element to the campaign.

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