Commentary

C2 Product Launch: How Coke Failed to Integrate Search

Oops, Coke did it again. I am sure all of us remember the strategic blunder Coca-Cola Co. made in 1985 when the company introduced New Coke. The best market research in the world couldn't predict the public outcry when Coke Classic was pulled from the shelves in favor of the new, sweeter Coke. Well, Coke's blunder this time around is certainly much more subtle, but also one that could have been avoided by a sound channel integration marketing strategy. Let's back up to Monday, June 14.

For the introduction of C2, Coke's newest product to satisfy the low-carb crowd, massive interactive buys were planned. Roadblocks on both Yahoo! and MSN featured some very impressive rich media units with some well-executed creative work. Roadblock ads on Yahoo! guarantee advertisers 70,000,000 impressions, while a similar unit on MSN guarantees 90,000,000. Actuals usually run north of 100,000,000 impressions. Okay, so the properties chosen certainly satisfy the audience needed for a new product launch. No problem there. Lots of buzz created.

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So now let's think about the halo effect of a product launch. What increases every time there is a buzz on something? The number of searches for said buzz item. You need simply to go to the Lycos 50 (http://50.lycos.com) to see the effect that media buzz has on searches. Last week's top search was "Ronald Reagan" and number two was "Paris Hilton." Many low-carb searches made the Lycos 50 last week, such as "Weight Watchers" (#13), "Atkins diet" (#16) and "South Beach diet" (#20). This is where Coke made a serious marketing blunder: It was absolutely invisible in search.

In the eerily prophetic Harvard Business Review article "Contextual Marketing: The Real Business of the Internet, "written by David Kenny and John Marshall in 2000, the authors predicted the rise of the ubiquitous Internet. The article details how savvy marketers would need to leverage every possible channel by which consumers interact (wireless, email, personal digital assistants, etc.) in order to bring their message to their audience, as opposed to the failed strategy of trying to push Internet users to their message. While Kenny and Marshall don't specifically mention search in their landmark article, the concept is salient to search, nevertheless.

People use search engines as the primary navigation mechanism of the Web. And while untold thousands were spent to roadblock Yahoo! and MSN, no one thought to spend 14 cents for the top spot for "C2." Or more embarrassing, how about the term "low carb Coke," which is currently owned by Sheknows.com for a measly 10 cents for the #1 position. Well, at least someone is taking advantage of the buzz.

Of course, the opportunity to connect with consumers via search doesn't end with sponsored listings. Let's reflect for a moment on the eye-opening data from the recent study done by iProspect and WebSurveyor entitled "Search Engine User Attitudes Survey." According to the study, roughly 60 percent of search engine users prefer organic listings over paid placement listings. So while Coke was planning this product launch months ago, it should have seen organic search engine optimization as an integral part of the marketing strategy. Ironically enough, the #1 result on Google's organic listings for "low carb Coke" is an article from CNN.com from last April announcing plans for the new C2. So basically, CNN and sheknows.com are capitalizing on the C2 buzz. I would love to see their traffic reports this week.

The message here should be readily apparent at this point. Product launches are complex, risky and expensive. To maximize the number of opportunities to positively connect with the consumer, search engine marketing needs to be a strategic part of the mix. Creating buzz is pricey, but turning that buzz into traffic to your site can be managed very cost-effectively through a competent search engine marketing campaign.

Ron Belanger is vice president, search engine marketing, Carat Interactive.

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