‘Coke Studio Pakistan has thrived by having an angle no other music show had’ – Coca-Cola’s Sadaf Zarrar

In an interview with Mumbrella's Ravi Balakrishnan, Coca-Cola's director of integrated content and creative excellence for ASEAN Sadaf Zarrar decodes the success of one of the region's longest running branded content initiatives - Coke Studio Pakistan

At the 12 season mark, Coke Studio Pakistan is among the longest running branded content initiatives. Why do you believe it has done so well there?  

“At the time the show began in 2007, the people of Pakistan needed something that spoke to how rich, diverse and progressive their culture was; a narrative that was not really being picked up.

“In addition, there were a lot of societal divides between the rich, poor, old and young. 

“Coke Studio was not about delivering the next top 10 hit, but creating music that meant something. So when a young person heard the song, he would want to share it because it said something about how he feels. 

“When you make just a good song, you are competing with international music, Bollywood and a lot more – and Pakistan does that too, since digital makes music easily available. 

“But for Coke Studio to have thrived for as long as it has, it needed an angle that no other music had. To look at it only as a music show is where any other market will struggle.”

How do you keep that angle alive?

“The most important element is contextual relevance. Every year, we tell stories that are relevant at that point of time. 

“To have transgendered artists on Coke Studio 12 years ago – for instance – would have been something interesting. But it probably would not have got picked up as well as it did recently, at a time when this has become a more pertinent topic.

“Similarly, when terrorism was at its peak, Coke Studio was producing songs like Aye Rah-e-Haq ke Shaheedo [Martyrs of the Righteous Path]. 

“The show addresses and echoes in real time, the constantly evolving sentiment of the country. It is not just about being happy or sad. Artists and genres come and go but it is the stories that go on forever. ”

In what other markets has this approach worked?

“The core or DNA is to be in touch with the pulse of what young people feel. The manifestation is different since the problems of Pakistan may be very different from those of India or the Philippines. 

“So the music is different but at the heart of it its an asset activated with the youth and that’s why it is so relevant. 

“Coke has always had a purpose. From the days of Hilltop to Mean Joe Green where you saw inclusion in terms of colour. 

“The thing is Coke is a brand that is brave enough to have a point of view. That makes it easy to have marketing programmes that speak to  inclusiveness and embrace diversity.” 

There is always a debate when it comes to such initiatives around the split between brand and content, and whether it is really moving the dial on performance. How has Coca-Cola performed in Pakistan? 

“When I joined Coca-Cola in 2009, it was not the largest brand in the country and our competitor was nearly double the size. Today, it is almost the exact opposite. It is the most loved brand right now and it is because of – but not limited to – platforms like Coke Studio. 

“The key has been consistency, relevance and relatability. Coke inherently has the ability to force its marketers to think a click deeper than the surface level solution. 

“If the solution was ‘let us create good music’, with Coke it was about creating meaningful music. The idea is to keep it as human and real as possible. And that’s been our win in Pakistan.

“The second you think of creating an expensive asset that does not directly sell it, there are always questions – the discussion around ‘We are not a music company but a beverage company’. 

“That’s where I give a lot of credit to the Coca-Cola way of marketing. It is a brand that has patience – being able to invest time, money and energy and to be able to wait for results. 

“You cannot create an asset overnight.You need to be able to realise that while it won’t raise profits tomorrow, it will deliver returns only once it reaches a level of maturity.”

Incidentally, what were your thoughts on the show before you joined Coca-Cola? 

“I had been blogging for sometime and had written about Coke Studio even before I joined. Blogging was fairly unusual back then – Pakistan had just a million internet users and no 3G or 4G.  The team on Coke Studio had picked my article up and used it as a proof point on how the show was creating a positive sentiment. 

“And so, when I landed an interview it became a phenomenal conversation. 

“Coke Studio is a torch handed over from team to team. The team that created it at the time is interestingly still a part of Coke and so speak to the initial flag bearers, quite frequently.”


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