Skip to content

Brand Storytelling Lessons from the Content 2020 Project

If you haven’t already seen the overview of Coca Cola’s Content 2020 Project on YouTube, stop reading this right now, and go spend the 18 minutes. If you’re at all interested in how content is going to reshape the strategic marketing process, this is quite simply, a manifesto.

The architect of the Content 2020 Project is Jonathan Mildenhall — the Coca-Cola Company’s Vice President of Global Advertising Strategy and Creative Excellence. That’s a mouthful of a title to be sure, but put quite simply, Jonathan is the chief storyteller for Coca-Cola, and Content 2020 is a bold move to create emotionally connected brand stories that are shared in a much more (ahem) fluid way. (See what I did there?)

When I first came across the Content 2020 Project, I was immediately struck by the business goal it presents at the very outset: “We intend to double the size of our business,” Jonathan says in the video. And, as he also points out, they plan to do this while realizing that, “Consumer-generated stories outnumber their stories on most of their brands.” So, what’s your goal for next year? Have you told your boss that you want to double the size of your business? Oh, and that you’re going to use brand storytelling as a primary driver to get there?

So, yeah, I became a fan right then.

Tracking down Mildenhall

As you might expect, I use the 2020 Project as an example in many of the talks and workshops that I give around the country (including those I present as a CMI consultant). And as I started using it, I realized I had a lot of questions about how one would actually create and execute a strategy like this.

I started doing some research about Jonathan, hoping to find a keynote or some presentation he’d given about the origins of the initiative. I then found a lecture that Jonathan had given some years ago to his alma mater, Manchester Metropolitan University. The lecture was on “creative excellence.” This too, is worth the hour and 20 minutes of your time.

In any event, at the end of that lecture, Jonathan invites the audience to connect with him on Twitter (incidentally, he mentioned that he’d love to connect with all of you as well).

Quick side note here: Do you ever have those moments where someone suggests something that should have been so blatantly obvious that you literally say “well duh” out loud? Yeah, that was me. It was as if the electrician working on your television looks at you and says: “Have you tried plugging it in?”

So I went to Twitter, followed him, and simply @Replied him.

He quickly replied (despite my typo), thanked me for the comment, and we were able to set up a time to talk.

I’m so grateful that he agreed to participate in an interview, and I learned even more about what Coca-Cola is doing with its content marketing strategy.

So, with no further ado, here is my interview with Jonathan. I hope you get as much out of it as I did:

Robert Rose: First and foremost, thank you for agreeing to do this, Jonathan. Can you just talk briefly about the birth of the Content 2020 idea?
Jonathan Mildenhall: Sure, happy to. First of all, as a company, the Coca-Cola brand has constantly defined its own benchmarks in marketing. We were the first brand to do sampling. We were the first brand to do coupons. We were the first to depict women in the workplace.
Coca-Cola is a history of firsts. And, we found ourselves facing such massive change in terms of both the distribution of technology and the distribution of creativity.
We are lucky enough that millions of consumers now want to produce content and be a driving part of our conversation. This gave us the opportunity to take time out and really think about how to articulate our evolved creative agenda for our key global and local brands.
Rose: So, how did you actually create the initiative?
Mildenhall: We pulled 40 people from around the company — all of whom worked in the Creative Excellence group. We gave ourselves a 5-day period where we would collectively write a content manifesto. We broke it down into subjects and allocated one subject area per mini group. Execs would then present their thinking, and the rest of the room would rip the points of view apart and put them back together again. Monday through Thursday, my role was simply to be disruptive and ask questions.
Then, on Thursday night of that week, I took what we’d come up with and I stayed up all night and basically wrote the words to the manifesto you see in the video.
The next morning, I came in and presented this to the room, and when we were done, everyone put their signatures on it.
We knew immediately that we had created something significant.

(Author’s note: I was so glad to hear Jonathan talk about getting the entire team to participate in creating the manifesto. I’d invite you to see my talk from this year’s Content Marketing World [eBook available here] called, “Getting The Choir To Sing,” where I discuss this exact point.)

Rose: How did you decide to give “it” away — that is, something that is ostensibly a core piece of your marketing strategy?
Mildenhall: The answer is very simple. Coca-Cola is the biggest purchaser of marketing services in the world. There is no way we can have a quiet conversation about this. I told my CMO that in order to put this into place, I could spend the next two years briefing every agency that we deal with on how to do this, or we can simply give it away and I can get straight to work.
We chose the latter, and it’s been extraordinarily successful. We’ve been blogged about and talked about in innumerable publications across the globe. And, most importantly, the advertising industry has really responded. The Coca-Cola Company is enjoying our most successful year ever in terms of volume and creative awards this year.
Rose: How do you envision Content 2020 being integrated into traditional marketing and advertising? Is it infused into, additive to, or does it ultimately replace what you’re doing from a traditional advertising and promotions perspective?
Mildenhall: It’s additive for sure. We fully understand that we are still going to have to do promotions, price messaging, shopper bundles, traditional advertising, etc. — that isn’t going away. But content is the way consumers understand the role and relevance of The Coca-Cola Company brands. We have to make sure that those “immediate stories” are part of the larger brand stories.
But, for the more financially minded of the organization, I say this: If I can fill up the emotional level of the brand, then I have to trade on it less and less. Believe it or not, we’re still engaging with new consumers that don’t have their emotional well filled. New consumers enter the middle classes all over the world every day. So from a global perspective, we must deliver solutions for the first-time consumers — and of course keep those who know and love our brands wanting to come back for more.
Rose: I love the idea in the Content 2020 piece where you talk about different models requiring different processes under the same principles. This was music to my ears. It’s often a struggle that I find that larger organizations I work with are trying to manage.  They struggle with one process across multiple silos (brand marketing, product marketing, PR, etc.) and one source of content (e.g., should we outsource or internalize it?). How have you de-siloed (or have you?) the political battles among product marketing, brand marketing, PR, and other teams so that everyone speaks with one voice?
Mildenhall: We have a number of disciplines of course — and they each have their own mandates. That said, we have horizontal strategies from creative development, idea development, and production. So, everyone’s remit is to be horizontal or integrated in thinking. We’re as siloed as any large organization.  But in the end, you may be heading up social, or PR, or production, but your solutions, your team solutions, must work horizontally across every function in the marketing world.
Rose: In the video you talk about the 70/20/10 investment model. You outline that 70 percent of the budget goes to the content that we “must produce,” 20 percent goes to content that is slightly out of the box, and 10 percent goes to “high risk” creative content. Does that number translate to quantity as well? Is the “High Risk 10 percent” of content investment equal to a disproportionately smaller share of the content quantity? In short, do you find you’re spending more for the super cool stuff?
Mildenhall: Actually it’s quite the opposite. It’s actually much cheaper to produce the 10 percent. But, it takes much more creative time to actually come up with. This is where I, admittedly, have a bit of an advantage. The Coca-Cola brand is one that any number of other brands have a desire to align themselves with — from other consumer brands to technology providers who want to innovate and explore new frontiers.
We are increasingly open to these ideas. If you think about it, Coca-Cola can be viewed as a huge media brand with amazing reach and frequency. If there are pitches out there from people who want to provide content and experiences, we are open to hearing from them. The question we ask ourselves is, “Can we use our assets as content, and can we create content out of our assets?
For example, the idea of the Happiness Factory — turning a piece of content into an asset we can leverage for other things. Or, another example might be our work with the Olympics. This year we literally produced enough material to produce a documentary about music, sports, and Coke. I believe we’re going to start doing a lot more of that.
Rose: One last question: Where do you see the future of content and marketing?
Mildenhall: Well, the big holy grail right now is how we get into real-time marketing. I’ve got to make sure that I’m taking content, news, and everything that’s going on around the world and transforming it into marketing communications. I really do believe that technology and consumer engagement is creating the opportunity for real-time marketing. But things like usage rights, IP rights, etc., are getting in the way right now. I could literally be producing fresh content every single day of the week. However, with a “real-time agenda” you get a lot of legal challenges.

I also think we’re going to see a big move to “brand curation,” where brands can help to leverage each other; for example, our Super Bowl commercial where we had the polar bears commenting on other ads. This, again, is a real trend, but most large organizations will have to get over the nervousness of the legal challenges of this.

But that’s really our goal. We want to give the audience the most compelling content — and earn that disproportionate share of popular culture. That’s the power of content.

I think my favorite part of my conversation with Jonathan — and the point that I keep repeating when asked — is when he said that as he fills the emotional well of his audience, he has to trade on it less and less. We all strive for this, yes? You know, when Apple charges $320 for their iPad mini — and it’s more expensive than the other machines that do exactly the same thing — it’s because Apple has sufficiently filled our “emotional well.” In fact, they’ve done so to the point that we are willing to pay a premium for their product. This is truly the power of great, compelling, engaging, and emotional brand storytelling.

So, that’s our mandate in 2013. Go out and fill the emotional well of our customers.

For more inspiration for making your brand into a master storyteller, read “Managing Content Marketing, a CMI book by Robert Rose and Joe Pulizzi. And if you would like to get more helpful insight from Coca-Cola’s Jonathan Mildenhall, sign up to attend Content Marketing World 2013.