This past December, Coca-Cola posted a holiday update to its followers on Vkontakte, a social media network popular in Russia and Eastern Europe. The post included a cheerful message overlaid on a map of Russia presented in Coke’s iconic red and white. This is a branding strategy Coca-Cola has used for years: the company is known for its marketing campaigns that emphasize locally popular figures and events popular to local markets.
These targeted messages are always offered in Coke’s instantly-recognizable style, affirming their vision of unifying consumers across the globe. The map was intended to give a boost to Coke’s presence in Russia while connecting it to the larger community of soda drinkers across the world. Coca-Cola’s marketing executives certainly did not expect that it would come to symbolize a major international conflict.
Because the map failed to include the Crimean Peninsula and its surrounding islands — a region whose ownership is claimed by both Russia and the Ukraine — the company attracted ire, not good will, from their Russian Vkontakte followers. Coca-Cola quickly issued an apology and offered a version of the map redrawn to include Crimea as part Russia.
However, Ukrainians on Vkontakte were so unhappy with this they began the hashtag #bancocacola. The situation became so serious the Ukraine’s embassy in Washington, DC conferred with the State Department and Coca-Cola to discuss the issue of the map. It seems a simple PR oversight led Coca-Cola to unwittingly inserted itself into a serious political battle. An official letter of apology was addressed to Ukraine’s U.S. ambassador from Coca-Cola’s head of public affairs before the matter was resolved.
While every public relations mishap may not warrant a company meeting with the state department, this incident serves as a warning to firms whose consumers span political and cultural worldviews. Across the globe, people are becoming wise to the fact they can leverage their social media presence letting brands know how they feel about their products and advertisements. In extreme instances, this can lead to a PR crisis culminating in decreased sales, or even a boycott.
With this in mind, awareness of the politics and current affairs of one’s target region is extremely important. It’s dangerous to assume a message that reads well in one cultural context will hold up in another. Likewise, demonstrating a shallow or biased understanding of regional social issues can make one’s company appear unprepared (if not downright insensitive).
On a brighter note, thoughtful and culturally-appropriate communications materials can distinguish brands from their global competitors. It’s worth it to invest time and money into knowledge about what works in your markets, from a locale-specific perspective.
Whether it means consulting with PR professionals from those regions, or giving its local news a thorough read, don’t forget to do your homework on the countries whose attention is important to your company. This can make all the difference between being perceived as a savvy, socially responsible brand or a symbol of deep political tension. After all, in either situation, your customers will surely let you — and all of their friends — know what they think.
After all, politics – and marketing – is always local.