Cause in Any Color

Dec 5, 2011 2:24 PM ET

What Do You Stand For?

Coca-Cola made a big splash with its disruptive cause marketing campaign recently, turning its red cans white to benefit the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). Yet, only a month after the campaign began and weeks before the end of the holiday season, Coke has decided to phase out the polar bear-emblazoned white cans. A new "Phase II" will return the iconic cans to their traditional color a full two months ahead of schedule.

Loyal consumers rebelled against the new white cans, claiming they appeared too similar to Diet Coke's silver cans and caused confusion. Others believe Coca-Cola in white cans tasted different. One consumer exclaimed, "These Cokes are not the same. In fact they are about as sorry as Pepsi. If you like Coke then you know the taste and these polar bear cans are NOT the same!!!!" Coca-Cola's corporate blog received a flurry of similarly distressed consumer reactions. Coke wanted this holiday cause promotion to draw attention, but this is surely not what it had in mind. Although history shows consumers tend not to take packaging changes in stride (recall the Tropicana and Sun Chips debacles), amid all the hubbub over the can color, the cause seems to be the last thing on consumers' – and possibly the company's – minds. Coca-Cola contributed $2 million to the WWF's conservation efforts, but there was still another potential $1 million on the table that could only be unlocked through matching consumers' $1 text message donations. It's unclear at this time how this pared-down campaign will affect donation levels. Will red Coca-Cola holiday cans and packaging reflect the same cause message?

The takeaways for companies looking to make a big splash are clear: do your homework and know your customers, particularly when there is an important cause at stake. We all know cause does not trump price, quality or clearly, design, but it's still an important attribute that must be approached with care. Time will tell whether this blunder will impact holiday sales, but we hope consideration is being given for how the cause will fare, as well.

In other news, Coke announced last Friday that it's also going red in another way. This time it's launching a multi-year partnership with (RED) to assist in efforts to effectively eradicate mother-to-child transmission of HIV by 2015. No word yet on whether or how this will be communicated to consumers, but we can only hope it will be very carefully.