Coca-Cola’s polar bear white cans: Marketing blunder or brilliance?

Everything you read about Coca-Cola’s festive white soda can introduced during the holidays to help save polar bears say it was a colossal marketing failure. I think not.

Look at Coke’s publicity stunt for the World Wildlife Fund with your conscious mind – and the backlash it ignited among its loyal customers – and it seems the world’s most recognizable brand blew it. Now, consider the disruption this white can created in the collective subconscious – and the attention that resulted – and you’ll see the brilliance that drives this campaign.

For more than 125 years, Coca-Cola has burned its logo and red can into our collective mental circuitry. In his book, Incognito, the secret lives of our brains, David Eagleman describes how the enormous subconscious architecture of our brain is markedly faster and more efficient – and more powerful – than our conscious mind. We think we’re in control, but we’re really not.

We’re hardwired to learn, imprint and do things without thinking, so that our clodhopping conscious self isn’t hobbled with automatic tasks. Do something often enough, and it becomes rote. If you’re even a moderate Coke drinker and you get thirsty for a soda, or you’re in the soft drink aisle at your grocer, you reach for that red can without thinking.

Now, the makers of your favorite soft drink disrupts that process by surprising your subconscious with the exact opposite of what it expects – a white can – and they’ve just triggered significant cognitive dissonance.

Your inner self is saying, “What the hell?” while your conscious brain tries to create a rational narrative around the surprise. You might not even know why you’re agitated, but one thing is for sure, it gets you actively thinking about the product and acting upon your impulses.

It’s the oldest storytelling trick in the book. Everyone from the likes of Greek mythologists, Bach, Shakespeare, Spielberg, and global marketers worth their spit have used cognitive dissonance to elicit a reaction by tweaking their audience’s implicit memory to cause an explicit reaction.

Even Coke said they were trying to be disruptive with its marketing. And it worked. Everyone carried the story, including Time, Wallstreet Journal, ABC NewsHuffington Post, and multitudes of bloggers and the so-called social media elite, with alarming headlines that included words like, “consumer backlash,” “resentment,” “fiasco,” “trickery,” and even “blasphemy.”

To be fair, there’s even a Save the White Polar Bear Coca Cola Cans Facebook page.

Are you kidding me? Is any of this rational? Of course not.

Coca-Cola and the World Wildlife Fund pulled off a miraculous marketing campaign that brought greater attention to an issue that is melting in public sentiment as steadily as the disappearing ice caps, while whipping up a whirling dervish of visceral attention for a ubiquitous brand during the most competitive time of the year for consumer mindshare.

Kudos to Coke. Like the street corner magician, they pulled off a marketing slight-of-hand that everyone talked about, but nobody got.

5 Comments On This Topic
  1. Pat posted
    January 3, 2012 at 5:16 pm


    They were trying to jump on the Al Gore / global warming bandwagon, and that wagon already drove itself over the cliff with a couple of glue-factory bound horses and three broken wheels.

    I don’t drink soda-pop, so I really haven’t paid much attention to the product on the shelf, but I just can’t imagine anything positive coming out of this gaff by Coke …

  2. JV posted
    January 4, 2012 at 9:21 pm

    Well Pat!
    Your BLUNDER and you not drinking soda-pop yet you here complaining it is a blunder and talking about Coca-Cola which you never drink – your mind is full of Coca-Cola …

    Long Live Coca Cola and there marketing!

    Melinda French Gates: What nonprofits can learn from Coca-Cola

  3. Pat posted
    January 5, 2012 at 8:53 am

    JV -

    Not only do I not drink soda-pop, but I am terrible at dechiphering word jumbles.

  4. Park posted
    January 5, 2012 at 9:15 am


  5. Trey posted
    August 4, 2012 at 4:23 pm

    Now take your whole burned image, autonomous sub-conscience and add the fact that diet coke is in a silver white can. Now the problem can be seen. People that are conditioned to grabbing the white/silver can picked this WWF can expecting it to be diet coke, as their brain has been used to “grabbing the (white) can without thinking”…..39grams of sugar and BAM!, grabbing the insulin!

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