In the year since OpenAI debuted ChatGPT, generative artificial intelligence (AI) has captivated trend watchers across advertising, technology and culture at large. Among consumer brands, the generative AI charge has been led by one of the industry’s most storied names, Coca-Cola. In just nine months, the beverage giant has applied the technology in a variety of ways, creating one of the year’s best campaigns and showing a way forward for other brands in 2024 and beyond.
While many brands were on the sidelines watching the AI arms race at the start of 2023, Coke was quick to take advantage of a partnership between management consultancy Bain & Company and OpenAI to launch its “Create Real Magic” platform. Since then, the marketer has used the technology for a number of digital and experiential channels, with a recent campaign that took advantage of the buzz around the Las Vegas Sphere.
Marketing Dive spoke with Selman Careaga, president of the global Coca‑Cola category, about the soft drink giant’s partnership ecosystem, the launch of the AI-assisted Y3000 flavor as part of Coke’s ongoing Creations platform dedicated to limited-run products and how the company uses generative AI for both consumer-facing and internal tasks.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
MARKETING DIVE: Coca-Cola was the first company to sign up for the Bain-OpenAI offering. What role has it played in your efforts this year and how does it relate to your other agencies?
SELMAN CAREAGA: First of all, it’s a partnership. For us, it’s not partnering with one or the other: We have a team of agencies and partners that we tap into. It’s a blurred world now. Bain is a consulting firm, OpenAI is a leader in the technology space. Then you have the WPP agencies, who are also in a fast-forward world trying to create digital experiences.
It’s an ecosystem of people that we partner with and that is the way to move forward, creating things that are a platform versus in the past where you would just get one agency, develop the platform, it would take months and then you learn from that and pitch some other ideas. Today, the world is more flexible in that regard.
We started with “Create Real Magic” using Bain and OpenAI, and we learned from that. We were very excited with our results. More than 120,000 pieces of content were posted and people were interacting with the platform for more than seven minutes. We took those learnings and we selected the 20 top creators out of that platform and in the summer we met with them [at the Real Magic Academy] to discuss how we could improve that as we move forward.
How did Coke’s AI experiments culminate with the Christmas campaign?
CAREAGA: What you are seeing now for Christmas is a result of what we learned on the platform, mostly around how people can interact in an easier way that’s more exciting. We believe we’ve made a platform now that is much more people-friendly to create a Christmas card that they can share with loved ones using Bain and OpenAI.
When we think of our ecosystem of agencies that we work with, of course, we partner with WPP mostly. The gist of that Christmas idea — the world needs more Santas — came from partnering with WPP, especially VMLY&R, as part of their agency network. Within that, we had a piece of video content and we are coming up with two short films that will be streamed. We’re tapping into the streaming world now as well; we learned from last year that it’s a way for us to connect in a different way with people.
You mentioned the Real Magic Academy. How is generative AI affecting how Coke looks at the role of creators?
CAREAGA: You start with the experts first. You learn how they use that technology, how they interact with the assets that Coca-Cola has and then how to take it to a more mainstream, scalable experience, which is now what we’ve done with Christmas. I don’t think it's just about using AI and AI replacing everything that we do, because we feel that AI is a tool to get faster, better insights. The [human intelligence] component is critical. For us, HI is as important as AI.
How is generative AI helping Coke meet its needs around personalization at scale?
CAREAGA: In the past, you would create some piece of content or a quiz or a great Christmas ad and hope people like it. Today, with the Christmas card as an example, it’s a two-way street in terms of how we engage with people and allow people to play with such an iconic brand as Coca-Cola. That’s a big shift from how we would do things, especially the Christmas season, in the past. Now we have a platform that allows people to interact with the brand in different, highly scalable ways.
Everything that we do, we always respect the values that Coca-Cola has stood by for the 137 years of its existence, whether it’s authenticity, optimism, uplifting and inviting people to have small moments of happiness. We always start with that angle and whether it’s a tool, a technology or an experience, it has to live up to those brand values that we’ve always had. As we move forward, we’ll continue to respect the values but try to experiment and learn from these technologies as well.
Can you tell me about how AI was used throughout the launch of Y3000?
CAREAGA: Y3000 is our eighth iteration of Coca-Cola Creations. With Creations, it’s not about a new product or a limited-time offer on the shelf, it’s really about creating experiences that tap into the digital world and the live world.
For us to come up with a new formula takes quite a bit of time. I can guarantee that we were discussing how to work with AI even before it became such a hot topic. The intent was to use AI and HI to understand how people think of the future: the emotions, the color, the flavors, the taste. We used those insights and then we worked with our R&D team and they came up with a formula for Y3000.
Once the product was launched, the Sphere represented a very unique opportunity to use probably the most innovative out-of-home space that you have today in the world and use it in a way that could not only create amazing visuals, but let people interact with our Y3000 platform via a QR code that’s creating a lot of engagement.
How is Coca-Cola balancing using AI for internal and external marketing applications moving forward?
CAREAGA: We see it from both angles, including people-facing experiences or content that we can create — Y3000 and Create Real Magic are just a couple of examples, and hopefully next year, you’ll see some other exciting stuff coming up that we’re working on. But in the background, in our internal world of design and our processes, we’re tapping into it, whether it’s research or analytics that can create better insights in a faster, more relevant way. We can use AI as a tool together with our human insights team to come up with more relevant ideas we can work with.
With everybody starting to do an AI project, we now have a team that understands the partners we’re working with and how we can filter everything AI-related. That’s something that we did not have in the past. It allows us to create more synergies.
As long as we feel that we can create something that people can engage with and create a good experience for our brands, we will definitely continue to use the tool. If we can make something faster and use better insights as well, I think we’ll continue to use that tool.