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Why Do Some Brands Seem Anti-Social?

By Brian Morrissey
When Coke relaunched its Web site a year ago, it ditched a dry corporate venue in favor of a global YouTube-like outpost to celebrate consumer creativity with a series of monthly contests. Just one year later, the beverage giant has changed course, quietly closing down The Coke Show, the site's challenge series, and launched a less ambitious site that links to Coke's many Web destinations.

With brands ranging from cars to tequila to retail setting up community hubs, The Coke Show joins a growing list of cautionary tales, including Wal-Mart's ill-fated social network The Hub and Anheuser-Busch's Bud.tv, showing it is far from easy to tap the same kind of sharing vibe that's fueled the rise of MySpace, YouTube and Facebook.

Those that have succeeded either tap into the existing passionate audience of a niche brand or offer some functionality that cannot be found already on popular social media sites.

"There's been a me-tooism on the social-networking front of 'I need to create a MySpace of my brand,'" said Pete Blackshaw, CMO at Nielsen BuzzMetrics. "Every brand needs to do some element of it, but do they need to go all out? It's not clear."

That hasn't stopped them from trying. Wal-Mart set up a social network for teens called The Hub that shuttered after three months last October. Since its much-ballyhooed introduction at the Super Bowl, Bud.tv has been a disappointment and is now being retooled. Coke billed The Coke Show as a radical embrace of consumer-generated content, running contests that solicited submissions from users worldwide to do things like send in videos that "bottle the essence of you."

Coke officials declined to talk about the site, but sources said the company was disappointed with low traffic numbers and determined that the global site needed to do more than just serve as a social platform. According to Nielsen//NetRatings, traffic to the site fluctuated along with the promotions offered to entice users. Some challenges only yielded a handful of entries while others proved more popular. Traffic peaked in March, when six million U.S. visitors went to the site, before falling drastically in subsequent months. By May, just one million people visited the site.

Despite the hiccups experienced by Coke and others, some brands are seeing real success in building online communities. One of the oldest, the five-year-old Owners' Lounge for Mini, taps into that brand's fanatics with a site for them to swap stories, share information and bond with each other. About 65% of the more than 200,000 Mini drivers in the U.S. have registered for the site, which is only open to owners, and 40,000 are active users. "It is a small, niche product," a Mini rep said. "There is not one on every corner."

In contrast to Mini, it's difficult for mass brands that compete across categories to forge connections in this realm because such brands may not be clearly defined due to inconsistent messaging, said Fernanda Romano, a global creative director at Interpublic Group's Lowe. "The Coca-Cola brand is so broad, and it's so much easier to do this with niche brands," she said.

Yet some big brands have met with success. The most famous is Nike+, a social networking site that extends the running experience by forming a digital hub for runners to compare workout data, challenge each other and connect. With Nike's brand focus on athletic performance, it has the credibility to build a digital community, Romano said.

"They solve a problem, and because they solve a problem, a community forms," added Chad Stoller, executive director of emerging platforms at Omnicom Group's Organic. "But with Coke, what problem are they solving?"

Mattel has a similar hit on its hands with Barbie Girls, a virtual world offshoot of a new high-tech toy the company released this month. In the run-up to the release of the doll, which includes a built-in MP3 player, the Barbie Girls virtual world has attracted four million members in less than four months. Owners of the doll, released last month, get special perks, such as the ability to keep a virtual pet and download music. Barbie Girls is now one of the largest virtual worlds in existence, outstripping the most famous, Second Life.

Most brands would be better off integrating with existing communities like Facebook and MySpace, Stoller believes. Wal-Mart changed course with its approach for The Hub, a back-to-school effort, by taking this year's push to Facebook. There, users can take a Roommate Style Match Quiz. Even that approach is not without its perils: The Facebook group got 600 members in its first week of existence, with many using the comments area to lambaste Wal-Mart's labor practices.

Brands are still groping for what role they should play in community building, Blackshaw said, whether it is being the center of attention, grafting onto existing sites or simply listening to the chatter. Coke itself has a series of ongoing digital communities, the most ambitious of which is The Yard, a Sprite mobile platform launched in June that aims to be nothing less than the Facebook of the cell phone. Such persistence is likely to pay off, experts said.