Will Teens Buy It?

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"Ah, this is Pam H. from Newton, Massachusetts, and I resent you saying that everything is going to be O.K. You don't know anything about my life. You don't know what I've been through in the last month. I really resent it. I'm tired of you people trying to tell me things that you don't have any idea about. I resent it. ((Click! ))"

-- Message left on the 800 line set up to promote OK soda

BELIEVE IT OR NOT, COCA-Cola actually paid its advertising agency to plant that message on a hotline for its newest product. But then, trashing its own claims is just part of the campaign for OK soda, a bubbly, mildly fruity drink for teenagers and young adults that Coke hopes will be its next blockbuster beverage and that the company is testing in nine cities from Boston to Seattle. With OK's deliberately drab cans and pseudo-Zen profundities ("What's the point of OK soda? Well, what's the point of anything?"), Coke hopes to capture a generation that is both anxious about its adult-size problems and inoculated against pitches from having grown up with television jingles at breakfast.

Of course, little is completely new in this marketing strategy. Getting messages across to audiences that don't fully realize they are receiving them is as old as the subliminal spots for popcorn and soda that advertisers flashed on movie screens in the 1950s. More recently, for instance, mtv blended commercials for a Pizza Hut delivery service with its regular programming by showing pizzas arriving by horseback or out of the ocean for its video jockeys.

What distinguishes Coke's campaign is that few of the global companies pursuing teenagers these days have been so elaborately slick in inventing ways to be unslick. Few, in other words, have gone to such great lengths to convince teens that the corporate voice is sincere. "You have to first and foremost acknowledge that you are marketing," says Brian Lanahan, manager of special projects for Coke's marketing division. Today's teens are "very versed in participating in the commercial world," he adds. "Probably their main area of power is as a consumer."

Which is exactly what attracts Coca-Cola and other consumer firms to teens in the first place. American adolescents last year spent as much as $89 billion on the latest trends in food, clothing, videos, music and, of course, soda; teens spent more than $3 billion of their own money on soft drinks alone. Yet America's 27.8 million teenagers are merely the vanguard of a global 12-to-20 market that numbers nearly 1 billion youths. Moreover, this mass of teens, particularly in the developing nations of Asia and Latin America, are far more influenced by U.S. products and popular culture than by what their own countries have to offer.

More than their global peers, however, American teenagers share an inveterate cynicism about corporate messages. This explains why in the OK campaign, Coke has set up an 800 number to let drinkers sound off about the beverage, and thereby define it for themselves. In another understated, low- tech move, the company is mailing out chain letters in target markets that mock the outlandish claims that companies often make for their products.

Some marketing experts are convinced that playing off this generation's angst is the wrong way in. "There's so much negativity around them, there are so many things to be bummed out about that they don't necessarily want to be reminded of that stuff," says one ad executive who spent the past 18 years studying adolescents. "Whether it's on the conscious or unconscious level, people are pushed away from it."

Coke argues that its understanding of teens is based on years of study, including the two-year Global Teenager program that employed graduate students from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The OK campaign is only the company's latest effort to extend its dominance over the world teen market: earlier this year, Coke launched its highly successful "Obey Your Thirst" campaign for Sprite, which also pointedly refuses to overpromise by suggesting that the drink will not produce beautiful women or athletic victories but only relieve a dry throat.

Even though Coca-Cola's soft drinks outsell those of its main rival, Pepsi, by more than 2 to 1 around the globe and Coke is the most popular single drink with teenagers, the company still wants to beef up its presence in carbonated drinks aimed specifically at teens. Pepsi's Mountain Dew, the most popular such beverage, owns 3.5% of the U.S. soft-drink market, compared with just 0.3% for Coke's citrus counterpart, Mello Yello. "Coke is trying to take it all," says Larry Jabbonsky, editor of the trade journal Beverage World. "Traditionally, Coca-Cola and Pepsi have allowed smaller players to be the product innovators. Now Coke is becoming an innovator too."

The OK campaign was fine-tuned during a year of field study that confirmed Coke's impression that the current crop of teens suffer, along with their twentysomething elders, from an acute sense of diminished expectations. Like many other researchers, Coke saw that teens were concerned about violence, aids and getting jobs, all of which heightened their typical adolescent anxieties. "Economic prosperity is less available than it was for their parents. Even traditional rites of passage, such as sex, are fraught with life-or-death consequences," says Lanahan.

Armed with its findings, Coke set out to address the very real problems that teens face without seeming, on the surface at least, to exploit them. The OK trademark struck company marketers as the ideal solution. "It underpromises," says Lanahan. "It doesn't say, 'This is the next great thing.' It's the flip side of overclaiming, which is what teens perceive a lot of brands do." At the same time, the OK theme attempts to play into the sense of optimism that this generation retains. ("OK-ness," says a campaign slogan, "is the belief that, no matter what, things are going to be OK.") Nor does it hurt that, according to Coke, O.K. is the most widely known phrase around the world -- followed by Coca-Cola.

All the rest of the campaign flows naturally from this studiedly unstudied, I'm-O.K.-you're-O.K. conceit. The same low-key approach animates the print and TV ads that Coke is rolling out in test markets this week. The major innovations in this battle for the teens:

SPEAK UP SO WE CAN HEAR YOU. To encourage youths to feel that Coke is on their side, the company set up a national hotline (1-800-I-Feel-OK) that lets callers hear recorded messages or speak their mind. Beside Pam's anti-OK rant, they can hear Dennis J. of Aurora, Colorado, saying, "Listen, I got something to say to you people. I think it's stupid that I can't say the word O.K. now. What, you own the words O.K. now? Yeah, I own the words. Have a nice day. All right? ((Click!))" Teens so inclined can also take a true-false "OK Personality Inventory" (Sample statement: "Sometimes people who feel OK don't deserve it.") administered in ironic tones by a male voice.

The key to the call-ins -- and to the entire campaign -- is the notion of "coincidences," or odd things that supposedly have happened to people after drinking OK. A none-too-subtle spoof of ads that link romance or success to the consumption of a product, the coincidences are proving popular with teens. Said a caller from Arkansas: "I started drinking OK two days after my boyfriend and I broke up, and ever since I started drinking it, bad things happened to him. He even broke his leg. That's pretty good." Others have simply given their opinion of the drink, including a caller who asserted that "this stuff tastes like crap."

THE CHEEK IS IN THE MAIL. Coke is also citing coincidences in chain letters that it began mailing two weeks ago to promote what it calls the "feeling of OK-ness." An obvious ploy for building word-of-mouth, the letter warns recipients not to break the chain but says they can keep it going simply by mailing it or showing it "to six close friends." Some of the fictitious coincidences sound Garrison Keilloresque. For example, "Paul S. of Grafton, North Dakota, followed the letter's instructions carefully. Within a week, he found his vocabulary had significantly increased. Within two weeks Paul was, in his own words, 'No longer shy.' And within a month, he'd appeared on nationally syndicated talk shows as an unlikely sex symbol." The letter concludes, "Whatever your problems, please remember: Things are going to be OK."

WHAT'S IN A CAN? The entire strategy behind the soda is embodied in its black-on-gray containers, which resemble post-office most-wanted pictures or underground comic strips more than typical soft-drink cans. There is not merely one design, moreover, but four. "We kept saying, 'God, we've got to come up with one package,"' Lanahan recalls. But when focus groups failed to agree on a single design out of the more than 50 versions offered, the marketers changed their mind. "One thing about this generation," says Lanahan, "they don't like to commit to one thing. They like to keep their options open."

The cans suggest a certain despondency and have nothing in common with upbeat images of pep rallies or senior proms. One can shows a blank-looking white teenager with a doleful gaze and bags beneath his eyes. To one side are panels of the teen walking dejectedly down an empty street and sitting outside two idle factories with his face slumped against his hands. Declares a message across the top of the can: "ok soda says, 'don't be fooled into thinking there has to be a reason for everything."'

Perhaps not, but Coke carefully thought out the reasoning behind the post- industrial-looking can. "We're trying to capture the irony they live with," Lanahan says."What we're trying to show with those symbols is someone who is just being, and just being OK." In an effort to broaden the product's appeal to nonwhite teens, another can shows no face at all, while a third depicts a primitively drawn red face without distinctive ethnic features.

With so much thought given to OK's slogans and packaging, what about the reddish-brown beverage itself? Coke says the flavor evolved from the fact that teens consume a variety of drinks that range from colas to lemon-lime. The company therefore concocted a new soda that would blend all these tastes into a single drink. And as with virtually everything else connected to the project, Coke arrived at the final flavor through extensive tests. (The company went so far as to list a soft-drink ingredient called ester gum as glycerol ester of wood rosin on the label, a more outdoorsy sound.)

Ultimately, teen reaction to this blend is what will make or break the product once Coke rolls it out across the U.S. this summer and takes it abroad toward the end of the year. So far, and perhaps in keeping with the generation's entrenched skepticism, two groups of Minnesota teenagers who participated in a Minneapolis focus group last Thursday showed little enthusiasm for the product at first taste. Both groups loved the 800 number and repeatedly called it from the observation room. The first group of 15-to- 17-year-olds eventually warmed up to OK. The group of 18-to-20-year-olds never warmed up at all. Given such initial coolness, Coke will have to hope that if teenagers swallow its cunning sales pitch, they will come around to guzzling the drink.