Jon Evans: ‘The Challenge For Coca-Cola … And What I Learnt From BrewDog Hangover’

Jon Evans: ‘The Challenge For Coca-Cola … And What I Learnt From BrewDog Hangover’

Coca-Cola’s pivot towards digital media makes sense on several fronts, but has one potential pitfall, argues System1’s Jon Evans. The Uncensored CMO podcast host also opens up about his brief stint as CMO at the edgy, and often controversial, craft beer company, BrewDog.

Coca-Cola’s pivot towards digital media ticks a lot of boxes but may fall flat with an important audience demographic.

That’s the view of System1’s chief customer officer Jon Evans, who worked as a senior marketer at soft drink companies for decades. 

Last month, Coca-Cola’s global CEO James Quincy revealed the soft drinks giant has become a ‘digital first’ advertiser in an effort to target the “next generation” of consumers. 

During an earnings call with investors, Quincy said: “To recruit the next generation of drinkers, our marketing has shifted from a TV-centric model to a digital-first organisation that balances local intimacy, scale and flexibility. Our digital mix has gone from less than 30 per cent in 2019 to approximately 60 per cent of our total media spend. 

“In our previous model, it took several months to create a TV ad. Now, we’re producing thousands of pieces of digital content that are contextually relevant and measuring these results in real time.” 

Evans told B&T that pumping more money into digital media makes sense on several fronts, even though the brand has become synonymous with iconic TV advertising, including its 1971 classic Hilltop by McCann Erickson (see video below).

“If you look at it from an audience perspective, soft drink consumption increases, the younger you are and peaks at teenage years. After teenage years, consumption steadily goes down the older you get,” he said. “The opportunity to recruit new consumers is much higher in the teenage and young adult age group. A lot of Coke’s brands will be targeting that 25 and under demographic, who are on social media and more likely to stream rather than watch broadcast TV.”

Will light consumers fizzle?

Evans questions whether Coca-Cola is placing too much of its media budget towards targeting heavy users.

“Coke is a good example where the amount of volume that comes from light users is much higher than you might think. Light users will be older, they might only buy their products once or twice a year, but it’s still important to maintain – as Ehrenberg-Bass would call it – your mental availability for those consumers,” he said. 

“The question for Coca-Cola is whether targeting young comes at the cost of quite a big volume of older lighter consumers.”

Evans said during his time as a soft drinks marketer there was always a temptation to over-target younger, core soft drink consumers, but this audience was often heavily saturated with marketing messages and lighter users were easier to reach.

For more than two decades, Evans held senior marketing roles at Britvic, Purity Soft Drinks and Lucozade Ribena Suntory. He helped turn around Lucozade Energy and relaunch Lucozade Sport during his most recent stint as a marketing director.

Lucozade Sport – and its then creative partner Grey London – released one of the brand’s most memorable ads, Made To Move, starring heavyweight boxer Anthony Joshua (see below). Evans opens up about his stint at Lucozade and why he left the role in an episode of the Uncensored CMO podcast.

BrewDog: ‘We operate in dog years’ 

In 2018, Evans left the sugar rush of soft drinks to move into alcohol marketing, which would turn out to be a heady and sobering experience.

He joined challenger craft brewery brand BrewDog to become its inaugural CMO at a time of rapid growth. In that year BrewDog sales increased by 55 per cent and its gross revenue soared by more than £50m to reach £171.6m. The business had also just secured investment from private equity.

BrewDog’s aggressive growth plan coupled with tight cost controls and a shoestring budget made Evans’ position challenging and, ultimately, untenable.

The marketing chief, who only lasted a few months before calling last drinks, said he learnt some valuable lessons along the way.

“My best summary of BrewDog is that it’s a very impressive business in terms of the growth and time that it has achieved it, this was driven by a huge passion for craft beer, they bleed for beer,” he said.

“The thing about BrewDog that made it difficult and challenging is the timescale in which it wants to move. The way (co-founder and CEO) James Watt talked about it is, ‘we operate in dog years, not real years’. So everything is done under incredibly reduced timeframes and pressure…and that makes it a culture that’s very hard to live up to.”

One of its hits: BrewDog opened a bar on the US and Mexico border during the Trump presidency.

One of its hits: BrewDog opened a bar on the US and Mexico border during the Trump presidency.

‘Everyday I was pitching for my job’

The pressure to be reactive and deliver tactical activity in unrealistic timescales ultimately led to Evans’ departure. He recalls being constantly stretched by Watt, who challenged marketing executives to come up with new ideas for products and how digital marketing could be used to transform the brand.

Although he “learnt a lot” from the hamster wheel-like experience, Evans added: “It felt like every day I was pitching for my job, almost like being in an agency and having to pitch every day. What I admired about that was the creativity it generated and the urgency it created, which was very impressive.

“The cost of that is you burn people out very quickly. What happens is you become quite short-term and focus on what can be achieved in a timescale, rather than what should be achieved. The downside is because you’re always playing the short-term game, you don’t really focus on things that might actually have a bigger impact in the long term.”

Although not a conducive environment for effective long-term marketing, Evans points out that BrewDog “literally wrote the book on how to create earned media”. 

“Everything they did, they turned into a story or a headline,” he said. “That’s textbook challenger brand – you create headlines through everything you do because you can’t afford to buy traditional media and do it in the normal way.”

A costly miss: BrewDog boss James Watt paid out £500,000 after misleading a consumer into thinking he would win a solid gold can of beer.

A costly miss: BrewDog boss James Watt paid out £500,000 after misleading a consumer into thinking he would win a solid gold can of beer.

BrewDog’s PR stunts have been a constant source of British tabloid fodder and agency water cooler gossip in recent years, but not always for the right reasons. The brewer’s most famous campaigns were in partnership with its long-serving creative communications agency, Manifest.

The brand won plaudits for its protest campaign of Russia’s ban on ‘homosexual propaganda’ and opening a bar on the US Mexico border to rail against Trump’s immigration rhetoric (see image above) and launching BrewDog Airlines.

BrewDog also received a backlash over its Pink IPA packaging, claiming its beer was ‘one of your five a day’ and misleading consumers into thinking they could win a solid gold can of BrewDog that wasn’t made out of solid gold (pictured above) – a mistake that would ultimately cost Watt a cool £500,000 ($800,000).

A few years after Evans’ departure, BrewDog’s culture of burn and churn came to light when more than 60 staff signed a public letter claiming the brewer had a toxic culture of “fear”, “sexism” and “misogyny”, and that its headline grabbing PR and marketing stunts were often riddled with “lies, hypocrisy and deceit”. These allegations were aired in a BBC documentary, Disclosure: The Truth About BrewDog.

After leaving BrewDog, Evans launched the Uncensored CMO podcast and joined System1, where he now advises brands on advertising effectiveness. 

Manifest founder and CEO Alex Myers has previously spoken to Evans about how he made BrewDog famous in an episode of the Uncensored CMO.

Read next: ‘Half Of Advertising Is Dull, Ineffective And A Waste Of Money’ – System1’s Jon Evans’ Urgent Plea To Improve Creativity And Effectiveness

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