Commentary

Red Goes White, But What About Green?

It may still be October, but one brand is already dreaming of a white Christmas. For the first time, Coca-Cola is turning its iconic red cans white, all in the name of a holiday cause promotion dubbed “Arctic Home” benefiting the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). I predict it will be one of the most buzzed-about holiday cause campaigns of the year, and the brand would likely agree. In a recent USA Today article, Katie Bayne, president of sparkling beverages at Coca-Cola North America, says simply, "It's the most important holiday program we've ever launched.”

Each can, along with white bottle caps on other Coke products, will feature a code prompting consumers to text $1 donations to the WWF’s efforts to protect polar bear habitats. Coke will offer a consumer donation match up to $1 million (although, interestingly, it’s not clear whether a minimum donation to the WWF has been guaranteed). It’s a bold move by the beverage brand to depart from its classic red in hopes of driving sales during the holiday season, and no doubt the promotion has enormous awareness-building and fund-raising potential for the WWF (a previous Coke partner). The intent seems genuine.

And, yet, the imagery of polar bears on aluminum cans -- tying product purchases directly to protecting habitats -- seems misguided. Aluminum can recycling has reached a high in this country, up to 57.4% in 2010, according to an industry report -- but that still leaves billions tossed in the trash every year, not to mention the toll of water use, production and distribution. And although the polar bear may be Coca-Cola’s holiday emblem, it’s also an unofficial symbol of climate change. It is a contradiction to support an environmental cause without an environmental product benefit or attribute, and it may mislead some consumers about the product’s impact on the environment. Imagery is a powerful driver for consumers who could wrongly conclude that purchasing this product benefits the environment more directly than the consumer-driven donation alone.

The promotion’s dedicated microsite, arctichome.com, currently states: “Beginning this holiday season, the more we text, the more we can protect.” The product will not officially launch until Nov. 1 -- at which time, I hope, the site will also share information about Coca-Cola’s environmental stewardship and will aim to inspire consumers to change their own behavior with this issue in mind. Advertising, as well as mobile and on-pack communications, will provide other powerful opportunities to share this important message. I’ll stay tuned to see whether this white promotion will also have consideration for green.

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