Continuity of brand message may be sound marketing practice, but Annette Farr wonders whether Coke's Christmas advertising chimes with the times. Rather than re-running old ads, she suggests Coke could have taken a bold environmental theme this Christmas, thereby tapping into growing consumer consciousness regarding ethical issues.
Coke's advertising is the stuff of legends. We are reminded of this during the Christmas festive season in particular, for it was over 75 years ago that Coca-Cola commissioned Swedish American artist Haddon Sundblom to create a series of holiday advertisements. His portrayal of Santa Claus as a jolly looking gentleman in a red coat with a white beard has since become the recognisable image of Father Christmas worldwide. 

In the intervening years, there have been a number of memorable television advertisements such as the 1971 campaign featuring the song "I'd like to teach the world to sing (in perfect harmony)", which subsequently became a hit in its own right. Latterly, "It's The Real Thing" has become a global slogan. All are credited with reinforcing the strength of the powerful Coca-Cola brand.

But this year's festive advertising disappoints.

Why? Well, for the most part, we've seen it all before. In the UK, Coca-Cola is re-running both the "Holidays are Coming" and last year's "The Greatest Gift" creatives. The former depicts red Coca-Cola trucks bedecked in fairy lights driving through a wintry landscape, while the latter features a girl who meets Santa in the 1930s and as she grows older Santa is with her every Christmas until she becomes a grown woman and she gives Santa a gift.

In the US, there is another appearance for Coca-Cola's almost iconic polar bears. Called "Arctic Beach Party", this ad features the polar bear family partying with penguins. As Coca-Cola explains, "Over the years, the bears have come to represent the fun and togetherness that friends and family share, especially during the holiday season."

There is one new advertisement: "At The Table". It joins the "Coke Side of Life" series and will be seen on TV screens around the world. This ad shows a family preparing for an outdoor meal. They are joined by others who bring their own tables, chairs, food, and Coca-Cola and the table grows and grows.

The company says the advertisement builds on its efforts to highlight the importance of family meal times, citing research that shows children who dine with their families are less likely to get involved with alcohol or drug abuse.

"Each of these 'Coke Side of Life' ads is about friends and families connecting and sharing," says Katie Bayne, chief marketing officer at Coca-Cola North America. "There is now considerable research that shows the tangible benefits of sharing meals together. We understand and believe in the value of coming together."

A laudable sentiment for sure but given the huge power of Coca-Cola's marketing machine, might it not have been refreshing to have seen a more overt ethical or green theme to its Christmas advertising message?

It is perhaps a little bit unfair to load too much of the burden for putting the world to rights on one company, however powerful and pervasive its marketing message may be. But the example of the Sundblom Santa image shows just how much influence this iconic brand can wield. Moreover, the growth in ethical consumerism may mean that such a choice would be more about harnessing a significant commercial opportunity, rather than a display of altruism.

The market share for ethical food and drink products in the UK has gone through the "green glass ceiling", says Simon Williams, director of corporate affairs for the Co-operative Bank. Spending on ethical goods and services has almost doubled in the past five years, according to a report from the Co-operative Bank. The average household in the UK apparently now spends GBP664 (US$1,360) a year on goods chosen on the basis of ethical values, against just GBP366 in 2002, representing a rise of 81%.

Moreover, there are indications that brands are beginning to address environmental issues in their advertising campaigns as David Thorp, director of research and information at The Chartered Institute of Marketing, points out. "We've noticed an increasing trend that brands are addressing CSR issues in their advertising and we will be undertaking future research to investigate this assumption further," Thorp says. "But it's clear that more and more organisations are realising that there are strong commercial self interests to be had by implementing corporate environmental responsibilities."

Coca-Cola is the world's No 1 brand. It is in an awesome position to make a big difference and contribution to global concerns over environmental, sustainable and ethical conditions.

We know from The Coca-Cola Company's 2006 Environment Report that it is has improved water efficiency by more than 19% since 2002 (and established 68 community-based water projects in 40 countries); it is implementing recycling and sustainable packaging initiatives and tackling energy usage.

The company was on the list of 150 global companies who last week published a communiqué to world leaders calling for a comprehensive, legally binding United Nations framework to tackle climate change. The communiqué said: "The scientific evidence is now overwhelming …climate change presents very serious global social, environmental and economic risks and it demands an urgent global response."

It is evident in the US that more brands are addressing environmental concerns in their advertising and marketing. "We are just beginning to see some packaged goods brands make interesting environmental claims regarding their new products," says Tom Vierhile, director of New York-based Datamonitor's Productscan Online.

For example, Productscan Online records that Finnish beverage producer Laitilan Lonkero has introduced Into Limetti, a lime-flavoured carbonated drink produced by fermentation using wind power. And interestingly Procter & Gamble has introduced a new 'Future Friendly' label on some of its cleaning products.

Green consciousness is everywhere. It's top of political agendas and is affecting the way we all run our lives. Bold advertising incorporating a clear message that we have to protect our planet - and its polar bears - seems more appropriate in this day and age. Rather than relying on the tried and trusted, Coca-Cola might have applied some lateral thinking, and in the process tapped into a subject of increasing interest and concern to consumers.