External perspectives: brand management

Rebecca Aris interviews AJ Brustein


Continuing our ‘External perspectives’ series where we interview individuals outside of the pharma industry we hear from AJ Brustein from the global brand team at Coca-Cola.

Approvals and aligning with market and business specifications can water down an enthusiastic marketing campaign. What if you skipped these pathways and created a marketing campaign with hardly anyone in the company knowing? What if it became a huge success and was created on a tiny budget, what lessons could be learnt from it? AJ Brustein of Coca-Cola did just that.

Here he shares his views on why he thinks it worked, how Coca-Cola successfully used social media to promote its messages and why he believes video content has to have that ‘got to see it’ factor in order to go viral.

Interview summary

RA: AJ, thank you for taking part in this interview. Could you please start by sharing a bit about your current role within Coca-Cola?

AB: I work on the global Coke brand team and we build strategy and activation for 200+ markets around the world on Coke. We spend about half of our time on strategy and capability building. We look at mid to long term strategy, how we’re going to grow moving forward, and then also ensuring that our markets around the world have the right capabilities to get the job done.

We spend the other half of the time focusing on bringing the strategies to life. We do that through large-scale programmes, such as the Olympics or the World Cup and also through more experimental, riskier programmes.

Besides that I focus on innovation and digital and so I lead most of the innovation programmes for Coke and much of the digital work for Coke as well.

RA: Can you tell me a bit more about the recent campaigns, ‘Where Will Happiness Strike Next?’, the ‘Happiness Machine’ video and how you used Facebook to bring all the campaign elements together?

AB: We rolled out our global campaign, Open Happiness in 2009 and it rolled out to 206 markets, which went well but with a glaring need for an improvement in digital. My first responsibility after joining the team was to craft the global interactive strategy for Coke. After creating that we felt there was a need for content that brought the strategy to life so that our marketers could understand what it would look like, how we could do it and what the effectiveness of it would be.

That’s where ‘Where Will Happiness Strike Next?’ came about.

The Happiness Machine was the first piece of content of ‘Where Will Happiness Strike Next?’. The idea was basically to see how we could take the power of earned media and see how far our fans would take our content.

We didn’t pitch any media on this particular content. We used status updates on Facebook and a tweet on Twitter (we had under 20,000 followers at the time and 3.7 million Facebook fans). They saw it and they shared it and that’s what really picked up the momentum and drove the success of the video.


“If I’m going to share something on Facebook then it becomes a representation of myself so I need to be comfortable that this is good enough for me to share.”


We wanted to do more of these ‘Where Will Happiness Strike Next?’ activations and we came up with another idea, the happiness truck. What we wanted to do was, once we had directed people to the video, we wanted to then direct them to see the truck driving around the world.

We created a hub on Facebook where visitors can click on a map and see the different happiness trucks around the world and how Coke was really spreading the authentic moment of happiness to people all around the world from our truck.

RA: What were the biggest challenges to creating a marketing campaign such as this?

AB: The biggest challenge for the happiness machine and ‘Where Will Happiness Strike Next?’ is that we’re used to a bigger production, a bigger budget and ensuring that everything we do is perfect before the consumer ever sees it.

This was going against everything that we knew and were comfortable with. It was a tiny budget, it was very fast, it was an agency that we’ve never worked with before and only three or four people knew about it in the company before we launched. We didn’t know what was going to happen.

Generally we’re very confident with what we do and we know what kind of results we’re going to get but we had absolutely no idea with this. So there was a lot of discomfort. It was a new direction but it was something that we needed to do.

RA: So how were these challenges overcome?

AB: Some of it was having the right people who had the attitude of ‘hey, if it fails it fails and we will learn and we didn’t spend a lot of money. If it’s successful, fantastic – we will learn and it’ll change the way we work.’ So I guess it’s just having the right attitude.


“If it doesn’t grab you emotionally, it’s not going to connect with you.”


One of the other reasons is that we didn’t really tell anyone. There were two of us working on this programme and each of our bosses knew about it and that was about it. We didn’t go through the massive approvals and aligning with all of our markets etc.

We just believed in what we were doing and said ‘we’re going to do it’. I think that allowed it not only to have the speed but also have our vision come to life without it being watered down by everyone’s opinion.

RA: How do you measure the success of a campaign such as this?

AB: We had both an internal and an external objective for this campaign. The internal one was to help us get alignment around this interactive strategy that we created for Coke and it did that, so it clearly helped us achieve that objective.

The external one was we wanted to make sure that we were creating content that connected with our consumer and linked Coke as a brand that spreads moments of happiness. We also wanted to experiment with the power of our fans on Facebook.

So we wanted to see if we could create content that would go viral based on the merit of the content alone, not buying it or paying for the views but actually creating content that was good enough that consumers wanted to share. After a week it had a million views and after a month it had 2 million views, which for us at that time was amazing. So it definitely hit that objective as well.

RA: What advice would you offer on creating sharable video content?

AB: We did a lot of work before and after working on the video to understand why it was successful. There were four main things that we wanted to include in our content.


“Because it was all about sharing, none of the other mediums really mattered because we can’t really share TV or radio…”


The first one was it has to have an element of surprise and the unexpected to it to grab your attention.

The second piece is that it has to be relatable. You have to be able to imagine yourself in that situation so it has to feel realistic so that you can almost believe that you were there.

The third piece is that it has to be emotional. If it doesn’t grab you emotionally, it’s not going to connect with you.

The fourth is this idea that we called the ‘got to see it’ factor. It leads you to think ‘Wow, I really want to show this to someone else and I feel comfortable in showing it to someone else’. If I’m going to share something on Facebook then it becomes a representation of myself so I need to be comfortable that this is good enough for me to share.

RA: How can media platforms best be used to communicate a message?

AB: Specifically, for ‘Where Will Happiness Strike Next?’, this programme was specifically crafted for online media – for YouTube really.

Because it was all about sharing, none of the other mediums really mattered because we can’t really share TV or radio, so social media was really the only one that allowed you to share.


“I guess you need to try and act more like a friend would act than a big brand trying to sell more products.”


RA: What advice would you offer on having an authentic and meaningful conversation with your customers online?

AB: ‘Where Will Happiness Strike Next?’ gave us something to have a conversation about, we learned that from the comments when we put it online. People started sharing it and writing comments. Initially the comments were ‘wow, that’s cool’, ‘where was that filmed?’, but then it started going to ‘wow, I wish I had one of those sort of machines in my school’ or ‘when are you going to come to North Dakota?’. That gave us something to talk about.

We picked up on this idea of people seeing it as relevant, and that they could see themselves in that situation. We were able to talk to people about why the truck needed to come to their college or their school.

We don’t try to act like a big brand who’s just shouting our marketing messages out at everyone and not really listening, but we try and listen more than we talk. I guess you need to try and act more like a friend would act than a big brand trying to sell more products. We must be authentic and act like a member of the community.

RA: Thank you AJ very much for your time and for your insights there.

AB: Thank you.




About the interviewee:

AJ is Senior Global Brand Manager for Coca-Cola, and has been defining strategy and managing execution for some of the world’s biggest and well-known brands and is currently heavily focused on brand strategy, digital communication, and innovation where he has led numerous award-winning projects. He has been building brands both from a global role and years of in-market experience in Japan and is currently focused on delivering brand love and brand value for Coca-Cola in an ever-evolving global marketplace.

Should pharma be listening more and engaging in more meaningful conversations?