Coca-Cola is one of the strongest brands on the planet. Everyone knows the drink, the bottle, the logo, the red lorries that herald the arrival of Christmas every year.

So what’s the best way of strengthening such a brand? Simple: by telling good, important stories.

You don’t need to tell a brand like Coca-Cola how storytelling works. The fizzy drink in its iconic bottle is the basis of some of the most successful storytelling ad campaigns in history.

To take just one example: The reason we know Santa today as a kindly old man with a beard is because that’s how Coca-Cola has presented him since the 1930s. For decades, the only link between the brand and the myth was that the man from the North Pole always refreshed himself with a bottle of Coca-Cola. Eighty years later, the focus of their campaigns remains not on the product, but on the story and the experience.

The campaign Coca-Cola launched in the Flemish media in 2015 took the same approach. The challenge: Make it clear to your readers that happiness is a choice. Inspire them with stories of people who have taken their happiness into their own hands. And show them that Coca-Cola stands for the same values they do.

Successful native advertising incorporates high-quality art along with a journalistic style and tone. Key design elements of the Coca-Cola “Choose Happiness” campaign clearly differentiated it from editorial, yet readers still connected strongly with the true stories shared.
Successful native advertising incorporates high-quality art along with a journalistic style and tone. Key design elements of the Coca-Cola “Choose Happiness” campaign clearly differentiated it from editorial, yet readers still connected strongly with the true stories shared.

The project landed in the lap of Creative Labs and Content Connections, which provides editorial expertise to Mediahuis, a Belgian newspaper publishing and broadcast media company.

Our task was clear: If you want to tell stories that a reader engages with, that are credible and have an impact, you have to give these stories the editorial treatment they deserve. That needs to be your mantra in preparation, elaboration, and visualisation.

To begin with, Content Connections sent its editorial team in search of testimonies of life choices that, with courage, willpower, or stubbornness, led to a better, happier life.

The short list that eventually went to Coca-Cola covered all angles: from safe, classic testimonies to extreme stories that grab you by the throat. To our joy, Coca-Cola wholeheartedly chose the latter. It gave us a trio of strong stories: a young priest, a foster family, and a transgender 15-year-old.

Content Connections never lost sight of its mission. Our editorial team went in search of the real stories behind Rudy, Nan, and Mats — as did our photographers, who sought to produce images that strengthened each testimony.

At least as crucial as the telling of these stories is the way in which they are presented. As a reader, you recognise a good piece by the tone and content, but you also expect the design to work in the function of the story.

For that reason, the rules around native advertising at Mediahuis were tightened. Native ads are stories that take the form and structure of an editorial feature, but that are transparent about their commercial origins. In concrete terms, use of style and colour distance it from editorial content, supported by clear disclaimers and logo.

It was the ideal way to connect these three stories with “Choose Happiness” by Coca-Cola.

Audience response to Mats, a transgender teen whose story was shared in the “Choose Happiness” campaign, was so great that other news outlets picked it up in their editorial.
Audience response to Mats, a transgender teen whose story was shared in the “Choose Happiness” campaign, was so great that other news outlets picked it up in their editorial.

And the campaign hit its target. A few days after the native ad was published, the story of Mats, the transgender teen, was picked up in full-page articles in Het Nieuwsblad, Gazet Van Antwerpen, and Het Belang Van Limburg.

Mats’ story received more attention, while the Coca-Cola campaign was put in the spotlight, too.

Yves De Voeght, media manager of Coca-Cola Belgium, was very satisfied: “Native ads reinforce the editorial credibility in a context where the brand is present only to endorse the values in the article, and not to sell a product.”

As we were saying: You don’t need to tell a brand like Coca-Cola how storytelling works.

And this approach to native advertising can also help to enhance the campaigns of countless other brands.