Commentary

Coca-Cola's Vitaminwater Reversal Shows It's Good To Listen As Well As Broadcast On Social

There always seems to be something very "broadcast' about social media. Brands will say all the usual "on message" things about enjoying a two-way conversation with consumers -- but ultimately, if there is a two-way chat, it usually results from a brand asking a question in a post in which they are broadcasting a bit of their own news.

But just to prove social is very much a two-way medium, Coca-Cola has caved into online pressure to change the formula of its Vitaminwater and remove a sweetener that fans said was not to their liking.

It was only a few weeks ago when I was at the Adobe Summit in London hearing from SapientNitro about a highly successful #makeboringbrilliant social media campaign. It used the buzzword of the day -- "storification" -- to put social users in the story itself by coming up with way of making mundane activities more interesting. It's become a well-established case study now for the reach gained by simply entertaining the public and getting them involved in not just c2b chat but also c2c interaction, via a host brand.

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So it should come as no surprise that if you can swing social media to your advantage by truly engaging the public in conversations around your brand, the outcome may not always be entirely positive.

To put it bluntly, the new taste of Vitaminwater wasn't to fans' taste. Just as they had come up with suggestion as to how someone online could make ironing more interesting or get through their revision with a smile on their face, fans flocked to tell Coca-Cola they weren't happy.

To give the fizzy drink brand its due, it listened. The old style formula is going to be reintroduced and the new sweetener experiment dropped.

There is a major lesson here and a couple of questions.

The lesson is simple. If you truly engage in social media, you have to accept that consumers will tell you what you think. All lawyers live by the axiom that you only ask questions you know the answer to, and you never ask a question you might not want to know the answer to. Social media has no such filter. Just as it can send a CMO in to a board meeting beaming about how many times #makeboringbrilliant has been used, it can similarly embarrass them through showing that despite the heap of marketing dollars put in to testing a new variety of a popular drink, they got it wrong.

The questions is, does it matter?

In the short term, it probably looks like it does. Being one of the biggest spenders in marketing and advertising on the globe comes with a public perception that you know what you're doing. When you get it spectacularly wrong, it's embarrassing -- just as embarrassing today as it was twenty-nine years ago when "New Coke" was dropped.

In the medium and long-term for Coke, however -- and for anyone else who takes social seriously -- it's not that bad. In fact, it can be a blessing. The company acted with twice the speed this week that it did twenty-nine years ago, and one can only imagine how much that has saved them in terms of reviving flagging sales and getting back to the volumes they were previously experiencing.

The worst-case scenario really isn't that bad. On the one hand, Coca-Cola got it wrong, but on the other, they got it spectacularly right. No doubt they had an eye on sales figures, but clearly the company that has used social media to such a successful extent used it to realise it had got it wrong and then held its hands up and moved on.

If you ever need an example of the two-way nature of social media, we now have it.

Coca-Cola being the name at the top of both the #makeboringinteresting as well as the Vitaminwater reversal will probably be no bad thing for the drinks giant.

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