The summer of 2014 was very noticeably the summer of sharing a Coke with friends. Instagram and Facebook were littered with images of folks drinking Cokes with their names on it, influential leaders presenting others with named Cokes, even personalized Cokes being flown via drone into keynote deliveries at Dreamforce. And, while all agree that it was a very successful campaign—it led the brand to a 2% growth in sales—many are too willing to name it a marketing success because of personalization.

Giraffe Social Media, for example, argues that the campaign gave consumers “ownership of the brand,” while The Verge claims that the personalized cans were perfect for social media. Neither, however, looked at the pro-social mechanisms—those elements that helped transition the product from a simple commodity to a social experience—underpinning the campaign, leaving it an anomaly, an “act of marketing genius,” rather than a strategy capitalizing on basic trends resulting from how the Internet has changed crowd behavior.

Why Coca Cola’s “Share A Coke With” Campaign Actually Worked

Coke’s campaign was such a success primarily because they leveraged an understanding of how, fundamentally, Internet and social media have changed the way in which people exchange with one another. Coke’s campaign was created on these principles:

  • Coke Acknowledged That The Fundaments of Exchange Have Shifted:
    While transaction used to occur on a 1-to-1 basis (business and consumer) in a reciprocal exchange of cash-for-product, that model is less effective because it no longer mirrors social exchange. Now that transactions occur primarily through social outlets—someone posts something and it gets shared and shared—the marketing paradigm has shifted.
  • Coke Built a Campaign That Mirrors Users’ Social Experiences:
    By moving away from the 1-to-1 transaction paradigm, Coke was able to capture their audience in a new, more social experience. The personalization aside, Coke’s message—buy a Coke to share with a friend—achieved two things:

    • 1) it positioned Coke as an inherently social product, something to be done for the benefit of another and,
    • 2) it invited a third party into what is traditionally a 2-party exchange. Through this invitation, Coke positioned itself as a socially-conscious product, not one bought for the self but one that allowed consumers to participate in the “feel good” act of doing something small for someone else.

How Pay it Forward Marketing Works

All Haley Joel Osment / Kevin Spacey references aside, pay it forward marketing works, in this day and age, because it actually addresses the intelligence of the modern consumer. The “modern consumer” has a fairly ubiquitous set of values when approaching brands:

  • They are conscious of ‘consumerism’ and, to some degree, equate it negatively with materialism. Brands that solve individual’s problems or offer individual indulgences often fall short compared to those that position themselves as working to create a social experience.
  • They experience the noise of an oversaturated market every day and are adept at tuning out even the cleverest sales pitch.
  • They are willing to engage with ‘artisanal’ products not necessarily because of a higher quality but because they create community benefit.

As such, the pay it forward marketing approach is appealing because, rather than selling a product to benefit the consumer—of which there are, likely, many other brands offering similar products—pay it forward products sell both the commodity and the experience of social consideration. Positioning the product as an element of community goodwill, the purchase becomes less “consumer-based” and more “community-based.”

As an additional benefit, pay it forward marketing is much better received (and gets substantially more visibility) via social channels because it appears not to be another piece of marketing crowding what, in the consumer’s mind, should be a social channel. Instead, it is an experience to be shared, giving the campaign significant organic lift and endurance.


As you can see, Coke didn’t win by slapping some names on soda cans. I mean, they did, but they did not because of personalization but because of how personalization transitioned the exchange value of their product. When marketing campaigns embrace a social, sharable model of pay it forward marketing, they transcend their product-as-product and, instead, position products as tokens of social capital.

What do you think about pay it forward marketing? Does it make sense based on your experience?

Also, if you love the pay-it-forward concept, try the CircleBack app for iOS or Android. CircleBack is the only truly intelligent complete contact manager and uses a pay-it-forward model to ensure that CircleBackers always have updated, organized address books.

Next Read: Creating Socially Conscious Branding »