Coca-Cola’s 4 keys to viral video success

It’s all about making people happy—and giving them content they feel they have to share with their friends.


Of course Coca-Cola would create viral hits. Its original Happiness Machine video has drawn 4.6 million viewers, and the ensuing campaign continues to win media mentions two years after it launched.

But it’s Coke, after all—a multinational behemoth with annual revenue of $35 billion. All it had to do was flood the planet with oceans of paid promotions, right?

Actually, no. The company got its YouTube plug to go viral on a promotional budget available to any struggling nonprofit: nothing.

The key is the content—and making people happy, said Coke senior global brand manager A.J. Brustein and Paul McClay, director of strategy and media at Definition 6, the beverage maker’s marketing agency. The two spoke at Ragan’s Corporate Communicators Conference on Wednesday.

The success wasn’t bad for a campaign that began as an experiment to answer a question: “Can we create Coca-Cola content which goes viral based on the merit of the work alone?” Brustein said.

The Happiness Machine

The video shows a Coke machine handing out drinks and, in some cases, pizzas and submarine sandwiches to surprised and delighted non-actors.

Market-specific spinoffs quickly followed around the world. In Istanbul, people had to prove they were a couple (i.e., kiss or hug) in order to get a bottle of the fizzy drink on Valentine’s Day. In Rio de Janeiro, a Coke truck delivered sodas, soccer balls, and surfboards.

The bottler pulled off a series of worldwide hits by drawing on two insights. Everyone wants to create authentic happiness, and the biggest driver of happiness is human connection, Brustein said.

That’s not to say that Coke didn’t have its advantages. The brand had a mammoth fan-created Facebook page where it could promote the video. Indeed, it was the Facebook page’s success that got it thinking about how it could further leverage social media.

Four keys to viral success

The kvass-colored beverage maker studied videos and decided on four elements were key to viral success. Brustein and McClay showed their audience JK Wedding Entrance Dance (74 million views on YouTube), saying viral videos should be:

  • Unexpected. When the wedding party comes dancing down the aisles, “it’s something you didn’t expect to happen,” Brustein said.
  • Relatable. “Everybody’s been to a wedding,” he said.
  • Emotional. “This really makes you feel good,” Brustein said. “You feel happy for everybody there.”
  • Must-see. People put their reputations on the line when they share something. It should have an element people feel their friends have to see.

Added McClay: “They’re going to share things that only make them look better.”

Just because Coke wasn’t pushing the video with Super Bowl ad buys doesn’t mean the effort was slipshod. It planned the original video carefully in advance, drawing up storyboards and creating a clever prop: a normal-size Coke machine that dispenses the table-size sandwich. Camerawork is high quality.

The slogan was “Where will happiness strike next?” This was simple and fitting for a campaign that eventually would bring Filipino guest workers home for Christmas after years away.

Coke was, well, happy about the reaction the Happiness Machine got when it first went live at a campus. The college students—all non-actors—laughed and cheered and gathered around to hand out the free eats and sodas.

“When we finished and pulled together the show, we knew we had something pretty good,” McClay said.

The company promoted the YouTube video on its Facebook and “cross-pollinated” in places like Twitter. The “Happiness Machine” stands in the top 1 percent of all Coca-Cola ads ever tested. It drew widespread coverage in the mainstream and won awards among peers.

Changing Coke’s thinking

“Because it was something that makes you happy, you’re willing to share that with somebody else,” Brustein said.

One lesson learned was that longer isn’t better, he added. The original video is two minutes long, but the 50-second version did even better.

Still, the video forced a change in Coca-Cola’s thinking. Formerly, television was its main video medium, and YouTube was a secondary repository for its ads. But the “Happiness Machine” demonstrated the power of YouTube alone. The Internet video came first and was a worldwide success before the ad buys followed. The company would eventually air its original “Happiness Machine” spot on the finals of “American Idol.”

“It really changed the way we create content,” Brustein said.

Brands should remember that people share through social media to give value and entertain others, McClay said. They want to connect and to provide a sense of who they are.

“It’s not about you,” McClay said. “It’s about your audience.”

@russellworking

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