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.

pennies, and more luxury items – gift economy spaces

The Mystery Powers of the Extra Penny Dish

I’m sure that the Penny Dish is something that deserves a rather long post in the discussion of everyday Gift Economy marketing situations, but some off of the top of the head thoughts are going to have to do. While I’ve been ruminating on Gifteco lately, on the back burner most of the time, the Penny Dish has been tugging gently on me. There is something about this dish that really speaks to several aspects about Gifteco Logic in marketing that I am interested in. I’ll run through a few in no particular order.

  • It is an example of Gift Economy that occurs in explicit market contexts – in fact involves the essential symbol of that context, currency.
  • Surely the spread of this dish and loyalty to it is an enormous surprise – Gifteco spaces are capable of unexpected results.
  • I have probably never actually taken a penny, though I contribute to these dishes regularly – their explicitly stated function does not necessarily equate to what they “mean”.
  • They proliferated in a coin which already was devalued in terms of use. Putting quarters or even dimes in there feels wrong – spaces of giving have parameters (Lisa Thorell @Lisat2 pointed this out to me.)
  • The penny donations seem to exist in specific contrast to – even in terms of position – the register actions they sit beside. They negate the exactitude that just occurred.  Think about the difference in emotion if the clerk rang up the price $0.03 over, and the 3 pennies you might drop in the dish.

I feel that the temptation when thinking about giving and marketing is to concentrate on the “gift” idea, which could involve thinking “Well, just what could I give? A discount? Something free? A smile? What will inspire this other way of thinking and doing from my customers? I don’t believe that this is necessarily the most productive thought. What is it that compels me to drop my extra pennies in that dish? What is the Gift that I am reciprocating? I believe it is the gift of the space itself…the dish. The presence of pennies in the dish also is a factor of course, evidence that this is a custom that others have invested in, and the sense that we are joining an endless chain of such donations. But it seems more that it is about how the retailer has opened up an alternate space, a place where something can happen that is in excess of the precise price/commodity exchange that just occurred.

Important to this penny drop off is the symbolism of excess, the way that customer who very well might have thought about the price of some item with calculation, is now invited to symbolically and ritually act with surplus. And in doing this they indicate – I believe – that the relationship between themselves and the shop is more than just as purchase occasion. A real and mental surplus is created out of literally nothing: to be poetic about it, the empty space of the dish opens up the nil space of the exact equivalence of price and commodity exchanged.

It seems important that this penny dish remains pure. Charities attempt extra change deposits, but these are not the same spaces. What seems significant is that a penny can be given OR taken. What this indicates to my eye is that “nobody” gets these pennies. They are – in a primitive sense – donated to the spirit of the transaction itself, an alter to the Unnamed God of mutuality.

What is compelling to me is that in digital realms spaces are capable of being made with very little capital or elbow-grease. In 5 minutes a wp blog is up. The challenge in social media marketing, I believe, is that of the penny jar. It is to carve out the reciprocally coded donation spaces that inspire that symbolism of personal and community excess. And how these donation zones are designed seems to be something of an art. How proximate are they to be to commerce? Once we realize that people have a desire and even a need to indicate their own surplus, to symbolize their own a + b ≠ b + a how do we harvest that: not for profit, but for the creation of the meaningfulness of profit.

For this to happen, the consumer and proprietor come together. I have surplus – I toss in pennies because I have “extra” – and I join you who also has surplus – you have just made a profit on our exchange. We are of a kind together. This very same thing occurs in creative contexts, or problem solving contexts. Members in contribution feel buoyed by the surplus of others (or the group) when they themselves have been given the space in which to have displayed their own surplus: we are of a kind together. The reason we don’t have to be exact about things is because we both, we all are surplus folks…again, the beer buying metaphor.

The penny dish does not take into account the often significant factor of status change, and agonistic giving. But it is a beginning, something that reminds us that the biggest donation a business can make might be the space for donations.

Reading a Little gifteco Lit

Thanks to Stan Phelps (@9INCHmarketing) who has pointed the way towards additional writers/speakers who have brought Gift Economy thinking to social media and marketing questions, I’ve begun reading law professor Yochai Blencker’s Wealth of Networks, a near tomb on information economy, and the present forces that bear upon democratic and creative processes of wealth. It does not explicitly leverage Gift Economy logic – thus far – but it certainly sets a broad intellectual table upon which many Gift Economy questions can be answered. Ran across this nice introductory paragraph on the generalized and quite common presence of Gift Economy logic: the necessary fuzziness of accounting.

Across many cultures, generosity is understood as imposing a debt of obligation; but none of the precise amount of value given, the precise nature of the debt to be repaid, or the date of repayment need necessarily be specified.Actions enter into a cloud of goodwill or membership, out of which each agent can understand him- or herself as being entitled to a certain flow of dependencies or benefits in exchange for continued cooperative behavior.This may be an ongoing relationship between two people, a small group like a family or group of friends, and up to a general level of generosity among strangers that makes for a decent society. The point is that social exchange does not require defining, for example, “I will lend you my car and help you move these five boxes on Monday, and in exchange you will feed my fish next July,” in the same way that the following would: “I will move five boxes on Tuesday for $100, six boxes for $120.” This does not mean that social systems are cost free—far from it. They require tremendous investment, acculturation, and maintenance. This is true in this case every bit as much as it is true for markets or states. Once functional, however, social exchanges require less information crispness at the margin.

– The Networked Information Economy p11o