BEST OF 2008

Coca-Cola's Marketing Director on the Brand's Largest Olympic Effort

Kevin Tressler taught China how to drink Coke in an eight-year campaign that culminated at the 2008 Olympic Games.

By Michael O'Connell November 24, 2008, 8:00 AM EST

Coca-Cola director of worldwide sports and entertainment marketing Kevin Tressler

Photo: Courtesy of Kevin Tressler

To think of the estimated $70 to $75 million Coca-Cola paid to sponsor the 2008 Olympics in Beijing as a modest sum, one only needs to imagine how much the company spent on advertising and promotions. The games marked Coke’s largest Olympic effort in its 80-year history and demanded almost a decade of planning. Leading those preparations was Coca-Cola’s director of worldwide sports and entertainment marketing, Kevin Tressler, who worked on projects like the Olympic torch relay, emblazoning soda cans across the world with a Mandarin logo, and building a 40,000-square-foot pavilion on the Olympic Green.

Coca-Cola started focusing on the Chinese market just hours after Beijing was chosen as the host city in 2000. How did the company approach such a long-term campaign?
When we look at a host country of a global event, whether it’s the FIFA World Cup or the Olympics, there are different phases that the country goes through. There’s the celebration, because there’s so much national pride involved with your country being chosen to host. Then that country goes through changes. New stadiums are built, and the people rally around how they’re going to welcome the world. This whole phase we could loosely call “anticipation.” Once the torch relay begins, from the host country’s perspective, the games begin. It’s a journey full of emotion and pride. Each of these phases or “moments,” as we call them, have specific consumer insights, feelings, and emotions that we leverage to amplify our brand message.

The Chinese seem more reluctant to consume soft drinks than Western countries. What are the biggest challenges of trying to grow the brand there?
The industry has been growing by double digits for the last four or five years in China, and so have we, so I wouldn’t necessarily agree that people are reluctant to drink soft drinks there. But one of the issues we saw in China was that people aren’t used to drinking cold Coca-Cola, so the strategies we deployed were really quite simple. We used the torch relay to create nearly half a billion consumer connections—physical connections, literally. As the torch traveled, we interacted with people. We used that as a tool to give them a chance to sample Coca-Cola in what we call “the perfect serve,” which is from the contour package and at 37.4 degrees Fahrenheit. We did the exact same thing during the Olympic Games. The forecast before the Paralympics stands at 26 million servings in the city of Beijing during the games.

Coca-Cola, like most sponsors, had pavilions throughout Beijing, including one at the Olympic Green. What were you trying to accomplish there?
That was designed and set up to ensure we delivered a perfect corporate citizenship message, a heritage message for the company and the Olympics, and a message around Coca-Cola. If you went through the whole thing, you’d also get the perfect serve. It was a combination of a variety of experiences that would hopefully make you understand that Coca-Cola is a responsible corporate citizen because it believes in the environment, that Coca-Cola is ubiquitous and a long-standing partner of the Olympic movement; and let you see how Coca-Cola participated with the country of China to get its people to express themselves through art.

Is event and experiential marketing in China different from other countries?
At the end of the day, I think the primary difference is the local and municipal laws of the city or the country. The brand means the same thing all over the world. We sell in 200 countries. It’s expressed differently, obviously, based on cultures and languages, but nothing else is really different.

How does Coca-Cola’s showing in Beijing compare to its efforts at previous Olympics?
This was our biggest-ever activation at the Olympic Games. Coca-Cola, in Mandarin, when phonetically written and directly translated means “delicious happiness,” and that’s what Coca-Cola stands for. We had 151 countries around the world that actually adopted Mandarin packaging during the games, which we’d never done before.

The Beijing Games were the most-watched event of all time. Did you expect these Olympics would be that significant?
Yes, we did early on. One of our strategies was playing a role in “East meets West and West meets East.” That strategy was written in 2006, so we knew this would happen. We’re delighted that it did and that we were able to be a part of it.

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