The following commentary comes from an independent investor or market observer as part of TheStreet's guest contributor program, which is separate from the company's news coverage. NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- The
recent news that Harvey Gabor has come out of retirement may not immediately ring any bells. But eight simple words that Gabor helped make famous certainly will: "I'd like to buy the world a Coke." It was Gabor who in 1971 gathered dozens of young men and women from around the world to a hilltop in Italy, to announce in song their desire "to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony." Almost overnight, the resulting TV commercial became an international sensation. Over four decades later, Gabor traveled to New York to meet with Google employees and help forge a strategic Coca-Cola ( KO) marketing initiative all the more significant because it so directly weds the lure of the past with the tools of the future.
As the young Google staffers introduced Gabor to the powers of Web-based social networking, he gave them the benefit of his own experience in advertising and human nature. The meeting of generations produced an inspired idea. Instead of just singing about buying the world a Coke, you can actually do so. Users may select from several cities around the world, and then "deliver" a Coke to a total stranger at a special vending machine located in that city. You can send a video message so that the lucky recipients know who sent the drink and they, in turn, can post a response (fully translated and close-captioned) that will reach you wherever you are. The power of social networking is thus taken one step further -- from a cozy online community to a real-time, person-to-person experience. Back in 1971 -- also an era of global strife, hatred, and uncertainty -- those fresh, diverse, unthreatening faces and their elegiac song offered a message of hope. By implication, Coca-Cola was itself more than just a carbonated beverage. It was a symbol of community and shared optimism about our ability to overcome our troubles. Some 100,000 viewers wrote letters praising the commercial -- almost unheard of at a time when, instead of clicking "LIKE," you actually had to put pen to paper and lick an envelope in order to show appreciation.
How can a TV campaign from the Woodstock era speak to a new generation? In fact, nostalgia is one of the most powerful psychological compulsions of our time and, if leveraged properly, an enormously effective mechanism for brand enhancement -- especially in the Internet age when the social media have already created their own communities in search of just such cohering psychic and economic threads. There are two messages: the love-in itself, and the updated media by which it can now be restaged and reinvigorated. As such, both messages can speak eloquently to (at least) two generations. In
a 2010 study in the Journal of Consumer Research, researchers from Arizona State University established a powerful connection between consumers and nostalgia for classic brands, based on our collective "need to belong." Just two years after the financial collapse, the authors could clearly see how their data-supported consumer longings for the sense of permanence and shared values that great brands represent. According to the study, "The need to belong is a basic driver of human behavior" (emphasis ours). Nor does nostalgia appeal only to those who actually lived through a given era. The phenomenal cross-generational appeal of TV shows like "Mad Men" attests to the power of borrowed nostalgia. Clearly, we all want to somehow belong to something. The Coca-Cola initiative is a model playbook for using cutting-edge media to mine the treasures of technologically less advanced eras. Unlike, say, Kodak 's museum piece artifacts -- with no hold on upcoming generations, perhaps because Kodak never really understood that it had something more humanly affecting than mere camera equipment to sell -- the Coke brand is presented as a bridge between generations. It's by no means an isolated strategy as Google is working on reinterpreting similarly iconic campaigns for Alka-Seltzer, Volvo, and Avis. That raises the question of how effective such strategies may be in reviving any number of other venerable old brands. I've written recently about Sears Roebuck, founded the same year (1893) that Coca-Cola registered its trademark with the U.S. patent office. Sears ( SHLD) recently announced it would spin off stores and sell real estate to bolster its sagging reserves. It's a stopgap measure. You have to build for the future, not just reduce.
Far from a victim of the Internet age, Sears should have been its beneficiary. The great Sears catalogue was actually an Internet forerunner as it allowed millions of Americans to satisfy their purchasing needs in the privacy of their own homes. Might not some sort of pronounced social media initiative seize on the emotional appeal of the catalogue with an online purchasing campaign that evokes or even replicates the catalogue? Shouldn't shopping at sears.com have some of the same personal impact as if customers were once again selecting from the storied old book? Here, in any event, is a way for companies like Coca-Cola to do good while doing well. Yes, there's danger of bathos when nostalgia is exploited. But the greater danger is a future generation with no sense of history, with no connections to the past and the people who lived there. You cannot watch either the original hilltop commercial or a video of elderly Harvey Gabor planning strategies with the youthful Google and Coke minions, and not feel those necessary human connections reverberate. Follow Richard Levick on Twitter@richardlevick.