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How Coca-Cola Turned Its Digital Publication Into a Global Phenomenon

Coca-Cola is often hailed for its ability to tell stories that celebrate diversity and inclusion. It’s hard not to be touched by the ad that shows a Coke machine uniting people who live near the hostile Pakistan–India border. And most people probably remember the “America the Beautiful” Super Bowl commercial from 2014, which showed Americans of all ages and ethnicities enjoying Coca-Cola products. The video was set to the title song proudly sung in seven languages.

As part of its ethos, Coca-Cola is committed to promoting a “one-brand” strategy that speaks to people around the globe. In a January 2016 press release, the company revealed its official “Taste the Feeling” initiative, which promised to tell product-focused stories that “reflect both the functional and emotional aspects of the Coca-Cola experience.”

Yet while the international storytelling machine is dedicated to stories about the human experience, its digital magazine, Journey, has done so with a strategy reminiscent of the first recycling campaigns: Think global, act local.

(Full disclosure: Coca-Cola is a Contently client.)

The journey from global to local

Coca-Cola successfully launched Journey in the U.S. at the end of 2012. In 2013, the publication attracted 13.1 million viewers and published over 1,200 articles that drew an impressive average attention time of 4 minutes and 40 seconds per story. It was only natural to expand this success abroad.

In March of 2014, the beverage company held its first ever JourneyOn publishing summit. Since that year, Coca-Cola has hosted annual conferences bringing together editorial leads from Journey publications around the world.

Today, Journey is active in over 25 countries, each with its own individual flair. What you read in Germany is, quite intentionally, different than what you read in the United Kingdom or Turkey. For Coca-Cola, localization is about more than just translation services—it’s the ability to tell culturally relevant stories that incorporate specific data, challenges, and interviews.

Coca-Cola doesn’t just translate popular American articles and hope for retweets from France. Publications in every country highlight topics, events, and news important to that region. When American content is incorporated into international blogs, it is carefully translated to fit within the context of local interest. And while themes can run global—such as health and sustainability—stories unfold through a local lens.

In the UK, Coca-Cola’s ParkLives program encouraged people to participate in free activities from Zumba to donkey grooming at nearby parks. The programs led to a consistent stream of compelling stories about individuals who accomplished personal feats, such as Melissa, who discovered that Nordic walking was actually pretty fun, and Sue, who used outdoor running as a way to build confidence and spend more time with her grandson.

According to Matthew Hepburn, editor-in-chief of Great Britain and Ireland, ParkLives has helped improve the wellbeing of local communities and been a rich source for content.

“We get loads of case studies from different people,” Hepburn said. “We get to see how ParkLives has given them a reason to get outdoors and changed their lives.”

In Ireland, Coke Zero bike-sharing inspired content on city programs from Galway to Cork. In the Middle East, Arabia Journey has covered the 3.2.1 Move! program, which brings physical education and games (like potato-sack racing) to kids in Turkey, Iraq, and Pakistan.

Of course, not all content is about community sports. In Germany, Journey posts focus on human interest angles and influencer collaboration. One of the site’s most prominent articles last year was a profile on Ihab Sukkaruya, a Syrian refugee who became a Coca-Cola intern and then an apprentice in Berlin. The bedrock stories are balanced by lighter fare, like a quick-hitter on how to take better Christmas photos, that performs well on social.

For Journey Arabia, content inspiration comes largely from current events, since the target audience is looking for news. Journey Arabia uses social listening to stay in tune with public opinion on stories impacting the Arab world and connects them to product events and announcements.

“What we do is think of our news agenda for stories that are topical—anything that relates to an announcement that we’re making in the region or a campaign that’s launching,” said Miriam Farshoukh, the public affairs and communications manager for Journey in the Middle East. “We listen to conversations that are happening on social media.”

Whether pushing a global initiative or covering a local event, the outcome from Abu Dhabi to Manchester remains the same: Journey stories are powerful because of the local context that speaks to so many different audiences.

The different flavors of autonomy

For Jay Moye, editor-in-chief of Journey in the U.S., Coca-Cola has been able to scale Journey’s success because of this editorial autonomy. Each publication plans its own editorial calendar, sources its own talent, and has a system to measure success.

For Hepburn, Moye’s counterpart in the UK, this difference in content mimics the rationale behind the production process. “We have different revenues and profit streams, different bottlers and products,” he explained. “It’s completely different markets, as well as a completely different political environment.”

In the U.S., for example, Moye sources 75 percent of his freelancers from the Contently talent network, where local journalists and bloggers create their own beat within Journey guidelines. In the UK, Hepburn works with the PR team to find local bloggers, as well as British content agency, Sticky Content, part of the Press Association, that provides editorial and video content on a weekly basis. In Germany, editor-in-chief Leane Zaborowski deals with a network of established bloggers.

“We always try to think the distribution and to find good ways to grow distribution and the impact of the content,” Zaborowski said.

Talent decisions reflect the needs of the target audience. For publications like Journey Arabia, which speaks to both the diverse UAE and more homogenized places like Jordan and Lebanon, creating a unified content calendar can be a challenge. In the end, the team steers away from country-specific content, choosing instead to find the sweet spot between regional and international stories.

“For us it’s about maintaining that balance,” Farshoukh said. “We’re quite focused on what content really works for the Arab world and for the Middle East, but also [want to] maintain a global view and global stories.” In the future, Farshoukh plans to integrate a more granular geo-localization strategy to also target smaller communities.

Despite this focus on editorial independence between international branches, Coca-Cola’s strong internal communication—including its company-wide intranet called Connect—makes it easy to share stories across publications.

“It’s a real circle, a big synergy,” Hepburn said. “It’s a really good way of saving money, and it’s cost- and time-efficient.”

The power of perception

Coca-Cola’s global content efforts have hit a few bumps along the way. One campaign, which featured light-skinned teens delivering Coke bottles to indigenous people from a small town outside of Oaxaca, Mexico, was criticized for promoting a colonial message, insensitive to the high rates of obesity and diabetes those communities face.

Yet when Coca-Cola gets it right, the brand has the ambition to tap into the hearts, minds, and pocketbooks of the brand’s target markets. “There’s the umbrella objective to increase brand love,” Hepburn said. “And brand love can help increase sales.”

“We want to drive the corporate trust of the company,” Zaborowski added. “We want people to understand our company, to humanize the company and the people and faces that work here, and to tell the stories that we have fantastic projects around sustainability and community engagement.”

Local initiatives target interests through a familiar lens, working genuinely to empower communities and increase their daily activity. There is no single recipe for Journey’s success, which is likely the reason it has been well received in such varied environments. Weaving together Coca-Cola’s global content tapestry are Journey’s editors, who are deeply committed to storytelling.

Whether in Brighton, Berlin, or Baghdad, the editors have found there is a similar group whose perception is most valuable: the ones with purchasing power.

“Moms and dads are the gatekeepers of the weekly shop,” Hepburn said. “If we can give them more information that helps them make informed decisions, it will help them during their purchase.”

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