August 27, 2018 | By: Michael Stone, Co-founder and Chairman, Beanstalk
Let me start by saying that I am a huge fan of Brand Coca-Cola, its marketing and its history. Thus, I eagerly anticipated the launch of the brand’s next licensed fashion clothing collection: Kith x Coca-Cola 2018. Kith and The Coca-Cola Company unveiled their third collection of apparel and accessories online on August 18th at 11 a.m. And there’s a lot of buzz about it. There are over 60 styles and all four seasons are offered. A quick visit to the website this past weekend revealed that a majority of the items are already sold out. It’s fun, it’s fashionable, it’s colorful and it’s creative. There’s also a lookbook for the collection and Coca-Cola is definitely a sexy brand. This is Coca-Cola licensing and marketing at its best. And for those who doubt the effectiveness of licensing as a tool to deliver a brand message and connect with consumers, let me again refer you to the words “Sold Out”.
I’m not going to review the collection here. I’ll leave that to the fashion media and experts (although I certainly was impressed). However, you should check out the four styles of Converse Chuck 70s featuring international logos, removable Velcro patches in the shape of the Coke bottle cap, green soles inspired by colors of the classic Coke bottle, a Coca-Cola logo that begins on one shoe and finishes on the other, and more. There are tops, bathing suits, towels, jackets, hoodies, socks and more.
The theme of the collection, inspired by today’s international reputation of the brand, is “togetherness and unity,” presented as classic themes of The Coca-Cola Company dating to its founding in the 1880s. But as I study the history of The Coca-Cola Company, as I have, there is another much more powerful, yet more subtle theme running through this collection - - Lifestyle.
The word “lifestyle” is used pretty loosely these days by brands and marketing professionals. And, many food and beverage brands have marketing strategies to present themselves as lifestyle brands. For example, Auntie Anne’s, the pretzel brand, launched a clothing line last Spring to celebrate its 30th anniversary (with proceeds going to Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation). Chipotle’s CMO, Chris Brandt, has declared that the brand wants to be “not just a food brand but a purpose-driven lifestyle brand” (“When Is a Burrito More Than Just a Burrito? When It’s a Lifestyle”, by Sapna Maheshwari, The New York Times, July 29, 2018). And there are many others trying to develop a lifestyle positioning, such as Pizza Hut and IHOP, and more. At a time when brands are seeking ways to connect and engage with consumers, among the many paths available to them, they want to convince consumers that they are more than the products that they represent. Brands want to engage with the emotions and values of consumers. Is it just marketing spin? Well, sometimes it is (and there’s nothing wrong with that). But sometimes, not too often but sometimes, a brand succeeds in entangling with consumers at a different level, beyond just the product. Coca-Cola is such a brand.
The product itself is a very (very) popular drink, one of the most popular all over the world. But let’s be honest, it’s tasty, brown, fizzy, sugar water (sometimes sugar substitute) that gives you a bite at the back of your throat. However, it’s so much more than just a drink. The brand delivers a genuine lifestyle message. But it didn’t happen overnight, and no brand should expect to become a lifestyle brand in the short term. Indeed, when one looks at the history of The Coca-Cola Company one finds that the positioning of the brand as a lifestyle started all the way back in the 1890s and has continued decade after decade right up to the present fashion collaboration with Kith. In 1894 Asa Candler (the father of modern-day Coca-Cola) purchased the company (for $2,500) from the heirs of the drink’s inventor, a pharmacist named John Pemberton. Pemberton developed the drink in 1886 (his bookkeeper developed the original Spencerian script logo still used today), and sold it at Jacob’s Pharmacy in Atlanta, Georgia, as a medicinal beverage that could cure all sorts of ailments (common at the time). But Candler had a different idea. He saw the drink as something refreshing, to be enjoyed while engaging in all sorts of individual and social occasions at all times of the day.
Candler deftly used merchandising and advertising to communicate that brand message. As the early predecessor to licensing, Candler was one of the first to use merchandising as a marketing tool. The company offered giveaways such as calendars and other non-beverage products for sale such as glasses clocks, wallets, watch fobs, playing cards and more, all emblazoned with the Coca-Cola logo, bringing the brand into consumers’ everyday lives for everyday uses. Now-famous drawings of women drinking Coca-Cola in social settings (the “Coca-Cola ladies”) as well as young men in similar social and sports settings were used to advertise the drink. In the early 1900s the company developed catchy slogans such as “The pause that refreshes” and “Around the Corner from Everywhere.”
As the years passed, Coca-Cola used movie stars such as Cary Grant, Jean Harlow, even little Jackie Cooper as well as music and musical artists to promote the beverage, from Benny Goodman, The Beatles, David Bowie to Taylor Swift today. With television came the jingles such as “Things Go Better with Coke” which was sung by over 50 artists, among them Aretha Franklin, Neil Diamond and the Bee Gees. And who among us Baby Boomers can forget “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing.” Sports also has always played a role in positioning the brand. Coca-Cola became a sponsor of the 1928 Olympic Games and has been a consistent sponsor every Olympics since and today sponsors many other sporting events from Little League to the NBA. And licensing has played an important supporting role in this brand messaging. Today Coca-Cola has over 300 licensees producing thousands of products all over the world.
Kith x Coca-Cola 2018 is the most recent example of Coca-Cola’s use of apparel and fashion over the decades to position the brand as a lifestyle, generally through licensing. In the 1960s the company teamed up with leading retailer Sears Roebuck & Co. (yes, Sears!) to sell t-shirts featuring the famous Coca-Cola logo along with music graphics. This was during the time that American Bandstand was taking the nation by storm. When the Coca-Cola licensing program was formally established in the late 1970s it was soon followed by the launch of Coca-Cola Clothes, by licensee Murjani, a groundbreaking fashion line of apparel sold at department stores such as Bloomingdale’s, Nordstrom’s and Saks Fifth Avenue and supported by dedicated shops opened by the licensee in New York, London and Tokyo named Fizzazz (inspired by the fizz of the drink). The original designer of the collection was a young Tommy Hilfiger who worked for Murjani.
In the 1990s Coca-Cola teamed up with the leading mail order catalog company in Germany, Otto Versand, for a licensed collection of fashion apparel and accessories that had its own dedicated 52-page catalog as well as multiple pages in the main Otto catalog. And more recently, the company has collaborated with designers all over the world for fashion collections including Marc Jacobs and Dan Romanelli (known as DRx). Coca-Cola fashions have appeared on runways from London to New York. In 2015 there were fashions using original Coke mash-up artwork that celebrated the iconic bottle’s 100th anniversary. And in 2012 licensed apparel (and other products) under a new brand created in association with will.i.am, EKOCYCLE (“Coke” spelled backwards), uses plastic bottles as a materials ingredient to support sustainability.
The Kith x Coca-Cola 2018 fashion collection does this legacy proud and continues the tradition, started by Asa Candler over 120 years ago, of positioning Coca-Cola as a lifestyle brand. Yes, it can be successfully done, with authenticity, marketing acumen, innovation, creativity and patience. Kith aptly uses the brand’s slogan “It’s the Real Thing,” but to me “Coke is It!”