Episode 023: Guy Duncan, Coca-Cola

Guy Duncan is a man of many Chuck Taylors. Several dozen, actually. Which is fitting, since the Coca-Cola Global Creative Director is always stepping foot on a new continent, managing Coca-Cola, Diet Coca-Cola, and Coca-Cola Zero – the trilogy of Coca-Cola brands – and overseeing all major international marketing, advertising, and content initiatives, including worldwide events such as the Olympics and World Cup.

Coca-Cola, consistently ranked as the world’s top global brand, has championed marketing based on its “Open Happiness” and “Share a Coke” campaigns, as well as its “Content 2020” vision for innovation, design, digital engagement, and branded communications. Its most popular YouTube spots typically feature a vending machine and spontaneous stunts, like dance-offs and singing competitions. In some cases, the machines have been placed in areas where political and social upheaval prevent Coca-Cola consumers from face-to-face interactions, therefore attempting to bring peace.

On this episode of On Branding, Guy tells us how Starsky & Hutch introduced him to the facets of brand storytelling, why placing the consumer as a hero in Coca-Cola’s offbeat advertising makes an impact beyond geography or language, and what the challenges are to being the world’s most highly ranked creative director.

Episode Transcript

Guy Duncan: A great story is one that you tell someone, but also that you expect to be told to other people. And that’s what we do at Coke – we tell great simple stories. And if we do that well we help spread all that value to our brands.

My name is Guy Duncan, at Global Group Content Director for Coca-Cola, trademark brands such as Coca-Cola here in Atlanta. I should say I look after the three Cokes, the trilogy of Cokes: Coke the brand, Coke Zero, and Diet Coke, and I do so for the international markets. We don’t dictate what goes on in different markets. What we do is supply the inspiration, the communication. We call that almost a 70/30 on some of the larger programs. We provide 70 percent of the toolbox and they’ll adapt to the 30 percent for their local market.

I always tell this story that when I was a kid I used to watch Starsky & Hutch every week. You’d watch it on a Friday night and it would be the same plot every week. And if you took that sort of nine year old boy who was very excited week in week out to get the same story and put him in front of Game of Thrones now, or Lost, or something like that – it’s so complex. Our minds are wired for different levels of storytelling. And just the fact that a nine year old boy now would look at Starsky & Hutch and say, “You were entertained by that? My god!” You know, we are wired differently now. And so, when we then apply that to our brand marketing, we’ve said “Hold on, we’re still telling thirty second stories and expecting people to react. We need to engage them.”

I mean, we have done so many exciting things around our vending machines. Hug Me vending. Dance vending. Smile vending. And we kind of corned the market in that area. But it’s also become a philosophy for the brand. We’ve become more authentic. We put our consumers at the forefront and made them heroes of our advetizing and our communication and our storytelling. Everyone has an opinion, and that can be quite difficult for anyone trying to distill something and protect something for such a long period of time. And you have to try to take different levels of different feedback, and try and distill that into something that is coherent and protective. That’s one of the hardest things about being a creative director in any company I would imagine.

We have a phenomenal rule on all of our projects called Seventy Twenty Ten. Seventy is, “Let’s get this job done. That’s the bread and butter; we know how to do this”. The Twenty is, “Let’s be explorative in the areas that we are comfortable in.” And then the Ten is, “Let’s be super innovative; this is blue sky stuff.” On every single project we demand that. An example of that, we did a 24 hour song writing seasion with Maroon 5 in London. And we filmed it nonstop. And had it live on the web so that people could tweet in their requests and their stuff to the band, which they did and bless them, they were fantastic.

People are expecting more of brands these days. So that’s the other thing is that if they buy you they want something more than just the brand. They’re buying into an ideal. They’re buying into an ideal, they expect something back. Certainly they buy into more than just the product itself. The responsibility is on us to engage, entertain, involve in a way that doesn’t interrupt in such a way that gets in the way of their lives but actually compliments what they’re doing.

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