Can Coca-Cola Crack the Charts With Its Ambitious New Music Plan?

In 1971, a few hundred young people from around the world stood on a verdant hilltop in Italy and sang about their collective desire to “buy the world a Coke.” This now iconic Coca-Cola commercial became a hallmark moment in advertising history and a bona fide hit: A version of “I’d Like To Teach the World To Sing (In Perfect Harmony)” by British pop group The New Seekers reached No. 7 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1972.

Half a century later, Coca-Cola has its eyes on the charts again, but with a very different strategy: through music created by superstar artists in collaboration with Coke itself; promoted and distributed by those artists’ labels; and supported by label partner Universal Music Group (UMG), which will assist with promotional and playlist strategy. On a recent day in Seoul, for instance, K-pop sensation NewJeans recorded R&B-­infused pop track “How Sweet,” sung in English and Korean, which arrived May 24 as both the lead 2024 Coke Studio song and the title track to the act’s latest mini-album.

The girl group is just one example of the global stars Coke has signed to its roster. Colombian phenomenon Karol G is working with the brand, and internationally in-demand electronic producer Peggy Gou has created a club banger with, as Coke puts it, a “timeless beat” that “will cross borders and genres.” Coke will roll out two more original songs in 2024, with all three 2024 Coke Studio artists (plus another two still to be announced) taking part in Coke Studio-sponsored music festival experiences and yet-to-be-revealed live performances. Coke Studio is also the first client of AUX, Spotify’s in-house music advisory agency for brands.

If the songs take off, Coke Studio will, as it has historically, boost visibility and streaming royalties for the artists involved, as well as further expand Coke’s own customer base and worldwide soda sales. Coke Studio is Coca-Cola’s biggest global music program of 2024, with the songs from each involved artist set to be used in the brand’s marketing in more than 150 countries — roughly 75% of the world.

This new phase of Coke Studio arrives at a moment when Coca-Cola is eager to expand its dominance of the carbonated soft-drink industry, a realm in which it has had “over 50% market share on a global basis for a very long time,” says Filippo Falorni, director and equity research analyst at Citi, where he tracks the beverage sector. The company reported $45.8 billion in net revenue for 2023 and a 3% net revenue growth in first-quarter 2024. Year to date (and as of press time), its stock price has risen from $59.82 to $62.

At the same time, its biggest rival, PepsiCo, is in the midst of cost-saving initiatives as it attempts to increase profit margins on the beverage side of its business (the company also owns Frito-Lay), which Falorni says have dipped in recent years. “Pepsi went through a period where they were almost deemphasizing the carbonated soft-drink business because they were focusing on [healthier] brands,” he says, “and that ultimately hurt the brand.”

As part of its belt-tightening, PepsiCo ended its contract as Super Bowl halftime show sponsor in 2022; its remaining music initiatives include its sponsorship of the National Battle of the Bands competition for marching bands from historically Black colleges and universities and its partnership with Mary J. Blige for May’s three-day Strength of a Woman Festival and Summit in New York. (Asked how Coke’s efforts compare with its direct competitors, Josh Burke, global head of music and culture marketing at the Coca-Cola Company, demurs: “We prefer to focus on what we’re doing versus on what our competitors are doing.”)

As Falorni explains, the respective companies’ business models directly influence their marketing strategies. While PepsiCo owns the majority of the bottling companies that produce Pepsi beverages, Coca-Cola sells the syrup that Coke products are made from to a global network of franchised bottlers, allowing Coca-Cola to “leave the execution of the lower-margin business to their bottlers and focus on marketing, which is what they’re best at,” Falorni says, citing campaigns throughout the company’s history that have framed its products as “refreshing, enjoyable and shareable” and created “strong brand equity.”

While it’s difficult to quantify the direct impact of Coca-Cola’s music-related marketing on sales (a representative for Coca-Cola did not respond to questions on the matter), Falorni says music-driven projects like Coke Studio “make the brand very relevant to consumers” — particularly young ones whom, he notes, soda brands in general are having a harder time reaching, given that the demographic is more health-conscious than previous generations. But the internationally popular, of-the-moment artists creating the music that powers Coke Studio — with the brand’s spirit of uplifting inclusivity in mind — is helping to attract that younger demo to Coca-Cola. This formula differentiates the initiative from how “other brands or even our competitors have been approaching music,” Burke says.

“When brands work with music, it’s typically very traditional,” he continues. “You license a song for a commercial or might have an artist smile and take a picture for Instagram. That’s effective and is something we do in our normal marketing, but when we’re working with music, we’re looking at our role in being authentic and connected to output and storytelling that’s going to contribute back to the music community versus just renting from the music industry. It’s very important for us that we’re adding value back into the ecosystem of music and fandom versus just borrowing from it.”

Coke Studio began in Brazil in 2007 as a musical variety show of the same name featuring performances by local artists. While it didn’t produce strong results in its first year, its 2008 launch in Pakistan became a phenomenon. There, the project took the form of a TV show called Coke Studio. Coca-Cola’s creative team recognized cultural tensions between younger and older Pakistanis and based their concept on bridging generations. “Whenever there’s such a tension, we try to find vehicles to tell a point of view [on it] from the brand perspective,” Coca-Cola global vp of creative Islam ElDessouky says. “Coca-Cola has always been a connector. We’re always inclusive and trying to bring people together.”

Coca-Cola’s team decided to center its Pakistan initiative on music, a format that ElDessouky says the team predicted would make “the point of view of the brand extremely evident.” Coke Studio Pakistan went to market as a TV musical variety show featuring Pakistani talents performing music in traditional regional styles — qawwali, ghazal, bhangra — along with hip-hop, rock and pop. Now in its 15th season there, Coke Studio has produced over 260 original songs in Pakistan and has over 5 billion streams on its YouTube channel alone. “Pasoori,” the 2022 Coke Studio collaboration from Pakistani American singer Ali Sethi and Pakistani vocalist Shae Gill, is now Spotify’s most streamed Pakistani song of all time, and in 2021, Pakistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs acknowledged Coke Studio for its “subtle forces of cultural diplomacy.”

Following its success in Pakistan, Coke Studio expanded to India in 2011, African territories in 2013, the Philippines in 2017 and Bangladesh in 2022. These projects were also filmed as variety shows featuring local artists performing traditional and original music. In 2022, Coke Studio expanded from these regional-market initiatives into a global program.

This push was marked by a project called “The Conductor,” a song and music video featuring seven rising acts, including Nigerian star Tems and American R&B artist Ari Lennox, performing a collaborative cover of Queen’s 1986 hit “A Kind of Magic.” Each artist recorded their own version of the song; those were then all combined — along with a live orchestra and a Freddie Mercury sample — into a two-minute video in which all seven artists performed parts of the song in their respective styles. The clip has 14 million YouTube views, and its top comment serves as proof of concept: “When the ads are so good you actually search for them.”

In 2023, Coke Studio signed 16 acts from around the world — Jon Batiste, Sam Smith and Imagine Dragons among them — to the program, pairing acts that lived far from one another for original collaborations. One such duo was Colombian singer-songwriter Camilo and Indian artist Diljit Dosanjh. Sung in Spanish and Punjabi, their song, “Palpita,” has 19.5 million global on-demand streams, according to Luminate.

Feature, Coke Studios

Coca-Cola measures this music’s success by how it resonates with fans and through data on streaming and fan engagement, particularly in countries where the artist in question didn’t previously have a huge presence. “Coke Studio has been instrumental in helping us tap into new languages and cultures, particularly with our recent collaboration with Camilo,” says Dosanjh’s business manager, Sonali Singh. “This partnership has opened the doors to new markets that would have otherwise taken longer to reach.” Singh says Dosanjh’s three Coke Studio collaborations over the last 10 years have helped him ascend to playing arenas and stadiums in North America and making his Coachella debut last year.

As the music industry at large now contemplates how to unlock the market power of superfans and fan armies, Coke Studio’s latest iteration is focused on exactly that — “especially given that Gen Z acts are more global and connected than previous generations,” ElDessouky says.

For Coke Studio, the goal is to tap into the attention (and spending power) of each artist’s fan base by giving them new music associated with Coke, a strategy ElDessouky calls a “value exchange that will result in loyalty and love associated with Coca-Cola.” Curating this latest group of artists “wasn’t necessarily about how many Instagram followers they have or how many monthly listeners they have on Spotify,” Burke says. “It was [finding] artists that have a high engagement and special connection with their fans” — particularly a “certain type of warmth or care.”

While the Coca-Cola team chose regional-market Coke Studio artists by first listening to their music without knowing who they were (to help identify “that ‘it’ factor,” Burke says), getting artists to sign on for this latest season was easy and a matter of simply reaching out. Burke says that while many artist teams inquire about involvement, this year, the team knew who it wanted to involve and sent the invites.

It also deliberately chose artists with “a footprint across the world,” ElDessouky says — such as K-pop act NewJeans; Berlin-based Gou, who represents both her native South Korea and the European electronic scene; and Karol G, the world’s biggest female Latin artist. (The pair of forthcoming artist announcements will expand the footprint of Coke Studio’s 2024 season to the United States and Africa.)

ElDessouky says the biggest incentive Coke Studio can offer artists is, well, Coca-Cola: “The brand itself has this magic and charm.” Plus, Coke Studio delivers artists and their work to audiences in 150 countries, including places where the act may not yet have a strong presence.

While the team declines to share Coca-Cola’s overall investment in Coke Studio, ElDessouky says the 2024 budget is spread across departments and that its total number is “not extravagant, because we are very much a conscious company in how we spend our money. But it’s not nothing either, because everybody needs to be successful and make gains off their services.” Still, Burke emphasizes that Coke Studio “is not just a paycheck or advertising partner” for artists. “We want to be looked at as a partner that can actually help propel the artist’s career.”

After the 2024 deals were signed, the artists got to work in their own studios. (Coke Studio doesn’t have physical locations.) Burke says while there’s minimal back-and-forth in terms of song approval, the brief is for artists to make music that ticks Coke Studio’s boxes — uplifting, inclusive and without explicit content — while staying true to their respective styles. “Peggy Gou, for example, made a banger,” Burke says. “She made a song that no matter where you are in the world or what time of day it is, you’re going to want to dance.”

Given this remit, Coca-Cola also encourages artists to be collaborative. For instance, Gou came up with ideas on how to tease her music and how she wants to appear on social media. “We love that,” ElDessouky says. “If we were able to just do things on our own as a brand, why would we collaborate with artists?”

Corporations and musicians partner frequently; still, Coca-Cola’s model of developing and underwriting music by internationally famous names is unique. While Pepsi has had stars like Michael Jackson, Ray Charles, Madonna and Britney Spears appear in commercials over the years, all of these ads used either preexisting music from an artist’s catalog or original songs directly referencing the brand — an approach Coca-Cola also tried in 2021 when it had Tyler, The Creator write and perform “Tell Me How” for a campaign.

But while any company can “write a check and get an artist to do something,” Burke says, Coke Studio has more closely resembled a record label. The music is released through UMG, where Burke previously was vp of marketing and enterprise partnerships at the label’s London office. (Like him, several members of the Coke Studio creative team have a music industry background.)

While roughly 50% of the artists who have participated in Coke Studio are UMG acts, being signed to the label isn’t a requirement. (Karol G is signed to Interscope Records/UMG, while NewJeans and Gou are signed to ADOR and XL Recordings, respectively.) Coke Studio has retained an ownership share of the more than 40 songs made for its previous global initiatives but will not own the rights to or participate in any royalties from the music made for this year’s project.

Released “as if it was any other single from these artists,” Burke says, music created through the initiative appears on Coke Studio’s channels along with the artists’ own platforms. The partnership also includes social media activations and performances. The Coke Studio program is developed in collaboration with the marketing teams in the company’s many global markets, with content distributed for local use — like billboards in Japan featuring Karol G.

Feature, Coke Studios, Spotify
The Coke Studio x Spotify studio space in the latter’s Los Angeles office offers emerging talent access to equipment and facilities.

Coke Studio also partnered with Spotify, which has a dedicated recording studio in its Los Angeles office for emerging artists curated in partnership with Spotify and not limited to Coke Studio-affiliated acts. Spotify, through AUX, will produce live events in partnership with Coke Studio for NewJeans, Karol G, Gou and the two artists yet to be revealed upon the release of their songs. Coke Studio has activations at more than 60 international music festivals including Belgium’s Tomorrowland and Coachella in the United States (where, this year, attendees could digitally insert themselves into music videos — and also just hang out in the air-conditioning).

Coca-Cola will hold the 14th annual edition of its own festival, the Coca-Cola Music Experience, in September in Madrid. (A Coke representative says the company can’t confirm if 2024 Coke Studio artists will appear.) Fan participation also occurs through bottles of Coca-Cola, with QR codes on the packaging unlocking access to concert tickets, music, videos and more.

As the industry increasingly focuses on “glocalization,” which considers strategy from both local and global perspectives, Coke Studio is a way for artists with specific points of view to leverage the brand’s ubiquity in a manner that transcends traditional advertising and is arguably more authentic then just singing a jingle. A Coca-Cola representative says the company sells over 1 billion servings of Coca-Cola a day, offering unprecedented crossover potential for the artists involved.

For Coca-Cola, the possibility of ­reaching the fans of its chosen artists provides this same opportunity. But at a time when it’s harder than ever to cut through the noise, Coke will face plenty of competition trying to bubble its new tunes up the charts.

billboard, coke

This story will appear in the June 1, 2024, issue of Billboard.

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