coca-cola’s friendship machine meets the social machine

A Commercial for Friendship

It’s not really a viral video, or perhaps even an attempt at one [watch the video, it makes a difference]. Only 10,000 views in the first three days. It’s a conceptual video, and perhaps one that is aimed specifically at the kinds of people that would find this kind of thing compelling: social media citizens. It lacks the short visual “hook” that makes something viral. Instead it is a commercial, carefully crafted to persuade, to inspire. One of the largest companies in the world makes a kind of performance art piece representing its product, and produces a beautiful message cut right from the values essential to social media group making.

Mashable wrote about the video release, explaining the machine’s design:

Coca-Cola actually planted the machines in Argentina last August to celebrate International Friendship Day, but just this week uploaded the video to its YouTube channel. The machines appear to be about 12 feet tall and requires that you ask a buddy for a boost to use it. Coke rewards that bit of cooperation by dispensing two Cokes instead of one.

via Mashable’s article “Coca-Cola’s Friendship Machine Rewards Cooperation with Cokes”

This is what really fascinates me about it. Social Media values have begun to exert pressure upon corporate messaging, upon their self-branding, that pulls them towards an ethic that is different. Previously it was all about the product. Post-handshake and storefront, in the Age of Advertising this has been the case. Make an amazing product, show that, and nothing else matters. The “sell” was showing the product. And endorsements – from outright pitching to unconscious associations – were nothing more than 3rd party proofs of the quality of the product. This Coke machine does something else, a shift that is slight in focus but huge. It is no longer smiling people who are made to smile because of the product’s quality. It is rather people who are made to smile because of themselves, and the product is only an catalyst or even space for it. There have been themes of this in advertising for a long while, but never perhaps so explicitly performed. The machine is literally climbed upon bringing two people together.

The Art of It

This goes to some very admirable achievements in marketing built right into the machine itself. It is monolithic, imposing a 2001 like unreachableness, but it is also a lateral invite to people to join with each other. The great corporate logo suddenly becomes a jungle-gym, a physical puzzle game – given the right age of folks. The very size of Coca-Cola becomes playful.

I talked briefly about this with Stan Phelps on Twitter @9INCHmarketing and he pointed me to a Harvard Business Review blog post where Coca Cola spoke about a shift in marketing, surely something that this machine is part of. I quote somewhat at length for convenience, as it points us toward a philosophical shift in general: capturing expressions. Expressions are the new vital metric.

In the near term, “consumer impressions” will remain the backbone of our measurement because it is the metric universally used to compare audiences across nearly all types of media. But impressions only tell advertisers the raw size of the audience. By definition, impressions are passive. They give us no real sense of engagement, and consumer engagement with our brands is ultimately what we’re striving to achieve. Awareness is fine, but advocacy will take your business to the next level…

…So, in addition to “consumer impressions,” we are increasingly tracking “consumer expressions.” To us, an expression is any level of engagement with our brand content by a consumer or constituent. It could be a comment, a “like,” uploading a photo or video or passing content onto their networks….

[one strategy]…Develop content that is “Liquid and Linked.” Liquid content is creative work that is so compelling, authentic and culturally relevant that it can flow through any medium. Liquid content includes emotionally compelling stories that quickly become pervasive. Similarly, “linked” content is content that is linked to our brand strategies and our business objectives. No matter where consumers encounter it, linked content supports our overall strategy.

via: Harvard Business Review – blog

But there is something even more going on here beside just brilliant marketing, or a seismic shift in corporate strategy towards user loyalty. The machine – even if a ploy – captures something that is happening in the media that it is designed to thrive in. It speaks the language of community building that is binding social media communication together, and perhaps necessarily so. There is the sense in Twitter, or in Facebook that the vastness of these connections, these platforms dwarf us, and we needs the boost up from the person right next to us to make anything out of it. The Coca-Cola Friendship machine performs – even if for only the benefit of a camera and a YouTube viral try – the very mise-en-scene of social media itself, and it does it in symbolic and artist fashion.

The Gift as Essential

Not to be missed is that a gift results in any shared labor to use the machine. A second Coke is dispense. 1 becomes 2. For those that have been following our recent conversation on Gift Economy and Gift Economy logic in social media, it is no coincidence that a gift result is the outcome and focus of Coke’s social experiment. Note, Pepsi attempted to make itself the center of gift-giving in a very different, I would say less powerful way. Gift is the creation of positive debt that binds community together in a symbolism of surplus. The Coke machine becomes the locus for gift giving, creating a micro circuit that cements the brand as not only the goal, but the means and the space. That this is done for a 3rd eye, the camera, to be poured into social media platforms is really evidence of the intimacy of connection between Gift Economy thinking and social media itself. This is what is special about social media. It has created a powerful nexus of sharable affects under the distinct values of Gift Economy logic, and it is not completely clear if Coca-Cola is using social media here, or if social media is using Coca-Cola.


13 thoughts on “coca-cola’s friendship machine meets the social machine

  1. Kevin, cool post. I actually love that this video is not viral – it gives it a special intimacy. It’s a sweet “fantasy” of Coke intermixing friendship with their brand (aka “If we built a 12 foot high Coke machine would you risk climbing high to get 2 cokes, one for you and your friend?” ). This remains totally useless on me as a consumer, as the multiple health issues associated with consuming Coke (sugar quantity –> weight, dental caries) can never be swayed by the most profound emotional appeal such as this. Really shows though that they are digging deep into people’s emotional psyches (lest your logical brain wake up?) 😉

    • Great to hear from you Lisa!

      Ha. Yes, there is always the facts of corn syrup and other evils. Coca-Cola gave us Santa Claus (for better or worse), so they are capable of donating to the culture certain artifacts around which we organize our relationships. The commercial world is always fraught with the ethical. What I find interesting is the way in which social media is tugging at corporate culture, both as it is expressed and experienced.

      At the very least the big boys are playing with the importance of gift giving and relationship building.

  2. Kevin,

    Great post. Solid analysis.

    Similar to Coke’s Happiness Machine the brand has done a nice job of creating an unexpected brand experience.

    Here are the ingredients or rules in my opinion that make for a strong example of marketing g.l.u.e:

    Relevant – like the fact they tied in with Friendship Day in Argentina

    Unexpected – certainly out of the ordinary with the fun 2 for 1 offer

    Limited – this speaks to being signature and unique. The oversize vending machine certainly fits the bill

    Expression – how is it given. No personal interaction here, but the needed cooperation to insert coins is compelling

    Sticky – is it talkable. Will people want to talk about it and share it. Although its not a viral smash, it does have some legs



    ‘The average distance between the brain and heart is 9 inches’

    • Cool that it fits so nicely into your RULES points. I like that. Didn’t see your blog post on Coke’s earlier version, will check it out.

  3. Very excellent post, Kevin — you make many great points!

    This is a brilliant concept. Along with everything you’ve said, the fact that it is the brand and logo which is being climbed and interacted with makes this particularly brilliant from that standpoint alone (a more traditional standpoint, I know). But this is an age of skimmers too, so even if one were to view this video for only a few seconds, the viewer still gets at least that much.

    As Stan pointed out, Coke is doing other wonderful things along similar lines. There is also the Coka-Cola Happiness Truck which first captured my attention and felt so good that a smile comes naturally to anyone who watches it (

    It is definitely more about “expressions” than “impressions”. Honestly, this is no different from what the best in traditional advertising has always aspired to — make us feel better about ourselves as we are interacting in the space of a branded product. Unfortunately, that kind of work has been few and far between as I suspect it will be still in the newer media. Doing work that tugs the heartstrings in a genuine way is simply very difficult to do, no matter when or how it’s done.

    Similar to what Ken tweeted, the last time I felt this good about Coke was in the 70’s and the “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing” ads (, which piggybacked on a big feel-good song at the time. Not to mention, I also have a sequence of Coke/Santa ads from old National Geographics framed on my wall, my wife recently gave up Coke for Lent, and I recently bought 12 bottles of Coke on sale, so maybe we just have a thing for Coke around here.

    • Thanks Paul! I completely agree that the flash image of youths climbing up on the logo is instant recognition, a beautifully designed association. – I really applaud the fellow/s that figured that out.

      The Happiness truck doesn’t tickle me so much – I love the cognitive dissonance of the “PUSH” in English, obviously meant for the American viewers and not the kids pushing the button, I can hear the guy off camera explaining in Spanish “just push the button!” – giving something away is an order of a degree less complex than what they accomplished in the Friendship truck – but HOW can you not smile when seeing it, right?

      And completely on the “I want to teach the world to sing” ads – actually got chills on the recall just now, it was a part of my youth. They have returned to an international, community vision. And what greater culture contribution has Coke made other than the invention of Santa Claus!

      I want to feel, and I think it is right, that it is the very nature of Social Media, the way it functions, the kinds of relationship exchanges required, that is pushing corporate vision and Advertising conception in this direction. In a certain regard Social Media is a “culture”. And for companies to succeed in that country they need to be able to speak that language. And when you speak a language often enough, you begin to “think” in that language.

  4. As one with a lifelong passion for cartooning, I need to correct you on one fact: the Santa Claus character was created by the brilliant political cartoonist/caricaturist Thomas Nast back in the 1800s. Perhaps Coke further popularized him, though.

    • Thanks Paul. I can stand for the correction. I was speaking more as a commercial/cultural phenomena. Nast : is not quite Coca-Cola : . I’m happy to give Nast the credit tho’ in the ultimate sense, and H. Sundblom gets some credit, as do the illustrators in between him and Nast. Interesting post on this migration: – mostly I have in mind the propagation of Santa AS Santa, I should have been much less loose.

  5. Hey Kevin, I have been thinking a lot about this topic, and still trying to get my head around some of the ideas. You have done a fantastic job of synthesizing what is happening in the coke machine scenario, and I am thinking of at least two applications to generalize what is happening specifically.

    Coke is rewarding community, or collaborative involvement.
    This is what social media is about! We are no longer internet citizens all alone surfing cyberspace, but citizens of a community working on similar problems, sharing thoughts, and helping each other. This is only the beginning of companies rewarding community involvement, creating new communities around their product, and tapping into existing communities.

    I love the idea of Expressions.
    That is the point that someone goes from passive to active. From being a consumer to a producer. Retweets where someone adds content of their own to the original tweet are a form of this. If people had shot cellphone video of themselves getting the friendship cokes, and shared it with a hashtag, that would have fit under the expressions label as I am thinking of it.

    I think companies that can provide a space for their consumers/users to create their own expressions that are shared with their own social graph will be able to fully capitalize on the gift economy.

    • Thanks so much for putting your thoughts out there, you know how I value them. I love that you see the same community definition changing as I do. It no longer is just customer/company or customer/product dyads. It is the lateral connections.

      And completely agree on this idea of encouraging others to become “producers” – this is actually an extension of the Green movement where people are starting to think of themselves as not just “consumers” of natural resource, but producers as well. The vision is economic ecology, making the most out of the potential of your customers. And RTs are a great example of added value, or production of value. One of the things about social media that I like is that every time you pass something along, your fingerprints smudge it, a little bit of you is expressed with that piece, and both things are communicated to your network.

      And of course I agree that companies providing space – whether it be literal space IRL, or cyberspace, or just conceptual space – where sociability can happen is a huge part. Just as people used to hang out at the hardware store to shoot the breeze, there is great potential to harness communities within these new contexts.

      All great stuff. Thanks for furthering this idea, and helping me see deeper into it.

  6. “I love the concept. I won’t call it a “ploy” though. IMO its a level of gamification. Many marketers are using it to increase engagement. This is a great way to innovate the coke experience – the customer would always remember the shoulders they stood on to get their coke – and yes they’ll share the tale. A marketers dream is to turn a customer into a champion.”

    • Natasha,

      @qstreet also talked about gamification in this example, and it makes perfect sense. And the idea of turning a customer into a champion – in this case literally climbing above everyone – is pretty apt too. Sam @qstreet and I had a good Twitter conversation about gamification in general. I’d like to use it in some of my up coming social media projects. I’ve never thought about it quite in those terms tho.

    • I should add, I only mentioned the possibility of the machine being a “ploy” because of few people responded to it in this vein. I agree, it is much more than a ploy. I find it to be an advertising work of art.

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