How White Polar Bear Cans Upset Coca-Cola’s Cause Marketing Campaign

Oh, if only polar bears weren’t white. I guess that was one of the thoughts that went through the minds of Coca-Cola executives, while putting the kibosh on the company’s special holiday white cans due to customer uproar. These cans were part of a joint campaign Coca-Cola initiated with WWF aiming “to raise awareness and funds to help create a safe haven for the polar bear – an Arctic refuge.”

There was only one problem – these white cans were too similar to the silver Diet Coke cans and it got too many consumers confused and angry. Many of them tweeted or emailed their complaints to the company. The result – the white cans are history and the red cans are back in.

This is another story of good intentions gone wrong, and there are some valuable lessons to be learned. Some are commonsense – such as not to mess with the brand – but some are green marketing-related, reminding us again that even large companies should go over basic marketing rules before they give a green light for such campaigns.

The campaign itself, which we covered in detail only about a month ago, and I even mentioned it in another Coca-Cola story two weeks ago (no good intentions there, though), was supposed to be a win-win cause marketing campaign. Coca-Cola was no stranger to polar bears and WWF – the company has supported WWF Arctic research and conservation efforts in the past and this campaign was supposed to take its commitment to a new level.

Coca-Cola has pledged $2 million to help fund the creation of a safe refuge for polar bears and agreed to match up to $1 million of consumer donations made through Arctic Home by March 15, 2012. In addition, last month Coca-Cola introduced a limited edition of white cans featuring a polar bear and her cubs on the cans to raise public awareness and funds for the polar bears. The text on the cans said, “we’re turning our cans white because turning our backs wasn’t an option,” and buyers were encouraged to make $1 donations to the cause online at or by texting a package code.

Why white cans? The company claimed it had intended a “disruptive” campaign to get its conservation message across. “The white can resonated with us because it was bold, attention-grabbing” and “reinforced the campaign theme,” Scott Williamson, a spokesman for Coca-Cola told the Wall-Street Journal. Yet, customers were far from impressed.

Within a few days, Coca-Cola started receiving complaints that the white cans were too easily confused with the silver Diet Coke cans, leading some weight-conscious and diabetic customers to accidentally purchase Coke instead of Diet Coke. “I purchased three six-packs because I thought they were diet. I drank one and wondered why it tasted so good. I didn’t look at the can. … I am a diabetic and can only drink diet sodas. They need to make it so it is not confused,” Gail O’Donnell of Danvers, Massachusetts, told ABC News.

Some customers returned open white cans back to the stores demanding to get new Diet Coke cans instead, while others went online and started tweeting angrily, from “my world has been officially turned upside down by these confusing white Coke cans” to “Dammit! I bought regular Coke thinking it was Diet. Screw you WHITE CAN!” Others were quick to suggest that not only the color of the can has changed, but “They say the white cans are the same recipe as the red Coke cans but it tastes different. IT TASTES DIFFERENT!!!”

Coca-Cola got the message and despite the fact it planned initially to have 1.4 billion white cans available until March, the company decided to halt further production of the cans (the existing stock will not be withdrawn though). At the same time, the company is now sending millions of red cans back into shops with polar bear images on them (in white, only this time on red background)  as “a way to maintain the excitement,” as their spokesman explained.

Coca-Cola won’t admit it, but this campaign was a failure. At first it actually looked quite brilliant. The Cause Marketing Forum’s official blog even described it initially as, “a fantastic example of a fully integrated cause marketing campaign.  From product design to consumer engagement, Coke’s Arctic Home effort is sure to make an impression this holiday season.” Well, it certainly did, but not the one Coca Cola was expecting.

Looking at it from a green marketing perspective, Coca Cola ignored two basic green marketing rules:

1. Know your customers – If, for the first time in 125 years, you plan to offer Coke cans that are not red, you better be sure your customers are open for such a ‘disruptive’ change. Apparently, in the case of Coca-Cola, they aren’t, and if someone in Coca-Cola still wonders why, maybe the words ‘New Coke’ will give them a hint. We’re talking about 1985, but it still should be fresh in their memory.

2. Customers don’t like to trade off primary benefits of products – Even when an important goal such as helping polar bears is at stake, companies should not ask customers to trade off things they appreciate about the product. In this case it was the aesthetics of the can as well as ease in shopping due to the distinct red color versus the silver Diet Coke can.

Coca-Cola could have checked it with Frito Lay that launched 100% compostable bags for SunChips that were also very noisy, only to find out that many customers were annoyed by the noise and didn’t care much for the environmental benefit of the new bags. These customers thought the “cost” of the noisy bag outweighed the benefit, especially when no other value was provided (the chips weren’t fresher or healthier and the price stayed the same). Just like with Coke, Frito Lay had to change the packaging back to regular bags, until they came up later with compostable bags that were also quieter.

Although, unintentionally, Coca-Cola’s marketing failure brought the campaign a lot of exposure, other companies should look carefully at these lessons and make sure they do their homework before launching a green or a cause marketing campaign. These mistakes cost companies a lot of money, cause customer ire and damage customer loyalty, not to mention the possible negative impact on the very cause the company is trying to help. Let’s hope these poor polar bears will be more welcomed now with a red color in their background.

Image credit: Rocketeer, Flickr Creative Commons

Raz Godelnik is the co-founder of Eco-Libris, a green company working to green up the book industry in the digital age. He is also an adjunct professor in the University of Delaware’s Alfred Lerner College of Business and Economics.

Raz Godelnik

Raz Godelnik is an Assistant Professor and the Co-Director of the MS in Strategic Design & Management program at Parsons School of Design in New York. Currently, his research projects focus on the impact of the sharing economy on traditional business, the sharing economy and cities’ resilience, the future of design thinking, and the integration of sustainability into Millennials’ lifestyles. Raz is the co-founder of two green startups – Hemper Jeans and Eco-Libris and holds an MBA from Tel Aviv University.

11 responses

    1. That’s not exactly fair. The biggest complaints came from Diet Coke drinkers who thought that’s what they were buying. Diet Coke is many things, but it’s not sugar water.

      The health concerns of diabetics who bought the wrong cans, and folks who were trying to buy the healthier option but bought the sugary one instead, are real.

      It’s amazing that in a company this large with dozens of people working on brand management, no one noticed that this marketing campaign might cause confusion issues between the two products.

      1. But Diet Coke or Diet soda in general is far from healthier as it has been proven to rot teeth faster, cause heart complications, among other things. Truly when I tell diabetics who are buying diet coke the real health risks they question why their doctors never told them the risks of drinking diet versus regular. I know a number who just plain stopped drinking soda or switched back to normal coke because the risks balance themselves out.

  1. Consumers should take more responsibility in READING the labels on the products they purchase.

    I don’t purchase this product personally, but from the photo in this article, it doesn’t look like it says “Diet Coke” anywhere.

    Not sure why there should be any confusion. Consumers are becoming stupid and lazy.

    If diabetics are so conserned about their health, they should avoid soft drinks altoghether.

    The Aspartame in the so called ‘ diet drinks cause numberous health risks including migraines, weight gain, depression, irritability (maybe that is why so many were pissed off!), vision problems (why they can’t read labels), breathing difficulties, anxiety attacks,loss of taste, memory loss, and joint pain.

    Aspertame also ironically can trigger or worsen symptoms diabetes.

  2. Customers have opinions, whether or not we agree with them. This is why focus groups and market research have always helped companies make decisions in alignment with their customers. Now, with social media, its even easier to see into the brains of your customers.

    Too bad Coke didn’t make better use of the tools available to them to predict this outcome ahead of time. But mistakes happen and at least they responded promptly to the customer complaints.

  3. I’m in total agreement with Debra’s comments above – this is not Coke’s responsibility, it’s the consumers.

    And for the author to call the campaign a “failure” several times in this story is misleading and irresponsible journalism. If you really want to help promote triple bottom line CSR, then don’t scold companies whose consumers are too lazy to read the packaging.

    Really disappointed in your reporting…

  4. Interesting conversation!

    On the one hand people are saying Coke shouldn’t be responsible, others are saying Coke is totally responsible. So what is it?

    Howard – the campaign was clearly something of a “failure” because people revolted and demanded it shut down. But you can’t have it both ways. If the consumers are too lazy to care, then why do they care enough to complain? That doesn’t make any sense.

  5. Seriously, people, don’t we have more pressing concerns than the branding challenges of poor billion-dollar Coca Cola company? And if junk-food-junkie consumers are so bothered by the confusion resulting from can color (never mind what they SAY!) and the noise a compostable chip package makes, we have a huge struggle ahead. What about the actual underlyiing issue/cause? What about the waste in transporting and replacing merchandise?

  6. This is absolutely absurd. If one cannot look for the word “diet” on the label then serves you right you got a mouth full of coca cola classic. If you purchased based on color and didnt read the label you dont deserve to consume any coca cola beverage ever!

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