Is the #CokeDrones campaign no more than ‘rodeo PR’?

#CokeDronesWas air-lifting free cans of Coke to foreign construction workers in Singapore a genuine act of kindness? Or no more than ‘rodeo PR’ from the world’s most famous brand, wonders Robin Hicks.

I wrote a fairly excitable opinion piece about camera drones the other day. I suggested how useful they could be for journalism and brands. A journalist friend of mine, Rob O’Brien, called me out on it soon after, wondering half jokingly if I’d been paid to write the piece. He was, with good enough reason, skeptical about their usefulness in the real world.

But then yesterday, out of the blue as it were, a press release landed in my inbox from Coca-Cola. They had used drones to drop free cans of the fizzy drink out of the sky and into the hands of foreign construction workers in Singapore. It was a stunt conceived in collaboration with the Singapore Kindness Movement, a curious non-profit group set up to encourage Singaporeans to be kinder to one another – a nice fit with Coke’s global ‘Open Happiness’ campaign.

Smugly, I emailed Rob to share the news.

Within minutes, Rob, who has interviewed a number of construction workers in Singapore for various newspapers locally and overseas, wrote back: “The last migrant worker I interviewed said he was really keen for a Coke on a high rise building. He hadn’t been paid in six months. But nothing a Coke can’t fix!”

Soon after, a comment appeared beneath our story about the #CokeDrones campaign, a beautifully craft awards video for which you can watch here:

The comment reads: “It does not solve anything for anyone and is kind of a scam. Why couldn’t they have just handed the Cokes out to them as PEOPLE instead of dropping them like food aid?”

At this point I felt like, well, a bit of a wally – even as a marketing journalist who writes about this stuff all day.

Happy now?

Happier now?

It appears that once more Coke has lunged into a serious social and political issue, as it did by giving away free Cokes to Pakistanis and Indians who interacted via special vending machines last year (which, of course, won awards galore), and as it did with a pledge to tackle bullying in the Philippines for one day a year, with the sort of sincerity you’d find in the dregs at the bottom of a bottle of fizzy pop.

I asked Coke’s Southeast Asia marketing director Leonardo O’Grady about this very issue, and the point of the ‘Open Happiness’ campaign, in an interview last year. He answered: “The brand idea is be an antidote to modern day woes, and make a commitment to ‘open happiness’. We don’t think we can solve the world’s problems, but the brand does believe that small gestures can inspire individuals.”

But why would the world’s most famous brand, and one of the world’s most powerful, deal in small gestures? Coke, with a market capitalisation of US$168.7 billion (according to Forbes), can’t in any way be described as small.

Coke staff helping the Typhoon Haiyan relief effort

Coke staff aiding Typhoon Haiyan relief

#CokeDrones comes just six months after the company showed the sort of action that might just attract a bit more credibility. It stopped advertising to focus its efforts on the Typhoon Haiyan relief effort in the Philippines, and put a beleaguered, overstretched government to shame in the process. Yes, the company still trumpeted its efforts through the media. But it’s the sort of PR that people can actually get behind and, dare it be said, admire you for.

In another email about #CokeDrones, Rob, who works with NGOs in Singapore and until recently was a media specialist as PR agency Weber Shandwick, went on: “Migrant workers in Singapore are used to being exploited, so while I’m sure the lads loved being in this promo, it won’t make an iota of difference to their lives – the real beneficiaries of a stunt like this are Coke and drones. It is cute, but if their message of kindness isn’t sustained it will be filed in the folder marked ‘Everything that irritates people about brands and PR today’ – that they are never quite ‘in’ an issue, but happy to use it to ‘conceptualise’ a quick PR stunt.”

“I’d challenge them [Coke and their agency] to go beyond its drones, to do something more sustainable… that isn’t designed for a few thousand Facebook likes,” he says.

“There are many good storytellers documenting this problem in Singapore, they’re not in short supply, but are large brands willing to show that this sentiment goes beyond a PR brainstorm and is core to their values? That’s the question that badly needs to be asked, as NGOs generally need all the support they can get.”

He adds: “If a video of drones delivering Coke to migrant workers is the beginning and end of their involvement, I’d be disappointed and it would show what a lot suspect to be true of these types of campaigns – that they are using serious social issues and riding them like rodeo cowboys.”

So, seriously Coke. Who do you think you are? What are you? The UN? Amnesty International? Or a soft drink manufacturer dropping a free drink into troubled waters?

You’re bigger than that. Act like it.

Robin Hicks


Get the latest media and marketing industry news (and views) direct to your inbox.

Sign up to the free Mumbrella Asia newsletter now.



Sign up to our free daily update to get the latest in media and marketing