As the Coke marketing machine rolls out personalized bottles with popular first names worldwide, it risks tarnishing its own by excluding some for fear of offending local ethnic sensibilities.
To tweak a line from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet: ‘That which we call a Coke by any other name would taste as sweet…’ Only we all know that ain’t true folks, which is why the Coke trademark is so heavily protected.
Moreover, Coke sees its personalized bottles, with the addition of common first names to labels, as a shrewd marketing move that can sweeten sales, establish a more personal link with consumers.
According to the Washington Post, Coke has introduced packages personalized with around 150 of the nation’s most popular names, but the move has backfired badly with the Arab community.
The names are being printed onto Coke, Diet Coke and Coke Zero packs in Israel. The sticking point for critics? There isn’t one Arabic name among them, although 1.5m Arabs live in Israel.
Name changes signal sweetness shifts
Whether Romeo is Montague, or Capulet – name changes signal a sweetness shift (in terms of positive perceptions or otherwise) as a take on De Saussure’s linguistic theory deftly demonstrates.
The ‘signifier’ representing each concept/thing (signified) is arbitrary, but there are no natural concepts/things that are simply ‘reflected’ in language, which also plays a crucial role in shaping reality or the signified.
Invariably such shaping is political, since the use of any word by necessity connotes others within a shared framework of cultural references. Clearly, if I fool someone into thinking this glass of no-name cola is Coke, rather than Pepsi, well, it makes a difference…
The Washington Post said that one Arab-Israeli citizen petitioned an Israeli court earlier this week, claiming that Coke’s marketing campaign was discriminatory; Russian immigrants are also reportedly upset.
My view is that Coke’s naming move is discriminatory and discourages social inclusivity, which is ironic given that global brand strength rests on the notion of soda bringing people together. ‘Dela en Coke med Emma’ (‘Share a Coke with Emma’) as a personalized label in Sweden reads.
And as proof that such actions aren’t confined to Israel, in early May, Coca-Cola Sweden decided not including ‘Mohammed’ – the 77th most common male name in the country, with 31,237 answering to it in 2011 – on pack labels.
Swedes omit 'Mohammed' from campaign
Coca-Cola Enterprises Sweden’s public affairs and communications director, Peter Bodor, told BeverageDaily.com that Coke had discussed the move with representatives from the Swedish Muslim community and colleagues.
“Their feedback to us was that they’d rather not see the name on commercial products. We took their feedback into consideration in the campaign and made the decision to omit the name, out of respect to the religious meaning of it,” Bodor said.
He added that comments from an “overwhelming majority of Muslims we’ve been in contact with has been positive and supportive, so we feel we made the right choice”.
OK, I accept the religious issue here. But what if I was called Mohammed and was not religious? I’d feel the brand was reinforcing religious stereotypes that weren’t necessarily positive, which affect my sense of inclusion within society, and also the way in which others behave around me.
In Israel at least, in its desperate bid to dodge controversy, the world’s biggest beverage firm risks doing damage to that most precious name, its own.