Behind the scenes of FCB’s new Coke Phonetic Can campaign



Though twenty-five years have passed since Apartheid, its effects are still apparent in South Africa today. During the Apartheid era, when black South Africans possessed names that were deemed too difficult to pronounce, they were often given common western names.

Creative director at FCB Joburg, Suhana Gordhan, expands: “Imagine that your name was Bonganiokuhlekwamadlamane. Now imagine that you grew up at the height of segregation in Apartheid South Africa. Your name was a problem, and so was your native language. The government decided it was easier to just call you ‘John’. This was the struggle with identity that generations of South Africans faced under an oppressive system. Twenty-five years later, the effects still linger and language still divides us.”

FCB Joburg won the Coca-Cola South Africa account in 2011, and kick-started their partnership with the soft drink by printing South African names on cans in the global Share a Coke campaign.

Share a Coke with Bobby was the 2013 TV commercial and campaign that saw Coca-Cola swap its brand name to feature 600 of the country’s most popular names. Additionally, Coke ran a consumer-led activation campaign which allowed ordinary South Africans the opportunity to have their proudly-African names printed on a can. In the midst of its success, a can was found with a profane Tsonga word written on it. The profanity slip prompted discontinuation of the consumer-led element of the Share a Coke campaign.

“The ‘slip’ was a very unfortunate incident whereby one individual took it upon themselves to abuse the ability to put one’s name on a Coke product. This resulted in hundreds of thousands of South Africans losing out on the opportunity to enjoy receiving their name on a Coca-Cola. There will always be individuals who deliberately try to deviate from the norm, but the joy brought to the larger population is far greater and more beneficial for the brand than the negative ripple that these acts create in small circles,” comments FCB Joburg Business Unit director, Struan Bourquin.

Now back with an added educational element, the agency presents the Coke Phonetic Can campaign. “For me, this was a very special campaign because I think the subject matter is especially unique to South Africa,” comments Gordhan on the new campaign. “I love that a big brand like Coca-Cola can commit to using their real estate on packs to help solve a social problem. In the past, Coca-Cola has placed people’s names on cans. However, The Phonetic Can took it further by adding the pronunciation to people’s names.”

To execute the campaign, Gordhan had an equally dedicated and passionate team working by her side, namely senior art director Jonathan Wolberg, senior copywriter Paul Frade, as well as art directors Jeremy Miller and Yaseen Mahomed.

“Our vision was to introduce South Africa to South Africa, by putting the phonetics of each name from all the different languages and cultures on Coca-Cola packs, effectively teaching South Africans to greet each other, by name, correctly,” Gordhan shares. “At its core, Coca-Cola aims to bring people together, regardless of their differences. So, this campaign felt like a perfect fit to do just that in the realm of Share a Coke.”

The FCB team worked with the Department of Home Affairs to gather names from every part of the country. The list comprised the most popular South African names in all eleven languages and across all nine provinces.

“We started with a list of over 12 000 unique names and ended up with a list of 1 000 names to go on packs, which would give us a high enough coverage of the population,” comments Bourquin.

When undertaking the phonetics challenge, the agency consulted with linguistic professors from multiple universities as well as professional writers who spoke the eleven official languages. Together with these language specialists, the team worked to develop a simple, non-academic phonetic system to help South Africans pronounce each other’s names better.

“The big idea or concept was that by adding the pronunciation to people’s names, the Coca-Cola packaging became much more than an acknowledgement of identity – it became a teacher, a change-maker. Wherever there was a Coke can, there was an opportunity to learn, or at the very least, to just try. The can became an invitation to say a name without fear. It became a way to bridge language divides, an educational tool and a symbol of cultural pride,” says FCB Joburg chief creative officer, Jonathan Deeb.

The Coke Phonetic Can campaign commenced in November 2018 with just the name and pronunciation initiative, but by the first quarter of 2019, it expanded with countrywide activations on TV, radio, cinema, billboards and social media platforms. And, excitingly, the vending machine model that was introduced with the original Share a Coke campaign made a comeback, allowing many South Africans the opportunity to get their hands on a personalised can. “The response was overwhelmingly positive,” remarks Bourquin. “It has shown us that South Africans really embrace truly South African stories and executions.”

Produced by Johannesburg-based Bioscope Films, under the direction of Fausto Becatti with DoP Fabian Vettiger, ordinary South Africans were featured in over 30 pieces of TV and online content sharing the story behind their unique names. “The brief from FCB was to focus on finding real people, with real names, and to tell genuine and entertaining stories with the knowledge that South Africa has such a diverse and interesting populace. A big part of my treatment was to put an emphasis on the heartfelt or more meaningful stories to balance out the funny ones, having had a personal history with a name that is almost always mispronounced,” Becatti shares.

The stories were shot using three cameras: the Sony Venice as the A-cam; the Arri Amira as the B-cam; and the Canon 8mm camera as the C-cam. “The Venice was chosen because of its full-frame sensor with the intention of shooting wide open, and giving us a sense of a medium-format portrait look and feel,” explains Becatti. “We kept it very simple in the set-up as our master shot, without too much movement, to act as the most basic shot of documenting a story.

“The Arri as a B-cam would capture a bit more movement and alternative angles to keep the edit interesting, and also to capture more of the character’s mannerisms or quirks both in their way of talking or their homes or rooms,” he continues. “The C-cam was simple but an incredibly important choice in the mix because it acted as the purest form of capturing our characters’ spirits. The 8mm film, not only rich with a sense of nostalgia but also loose and gritty, meant that we got cutaways that were the most raw and pure versions of the people.”

The Coca-Cola YouTube channel created a teaching series titled Share a Sound to teach complex sounds such as the ‘q’ and ‘x’ click sound commonly found in Zulu and Xhosa names. The series has since gained much attraction from viewers, including a school teacher who has requested the use of the series in the classroom.

Bourquin expands: “We received a message on our YouTube channel from a school teacher asking if she could use the content as a learning tool. This is, of course, exactly the intention of the campaign and led us to create specific sound boxes which could be used to further help learners understand how to pronounce our names.”

Radio station hosts such as 702’s Bongani Bingwa shared their support of the campaign with their listeners. Other national radio stations went as far as changing their names and jingles for the day to the most difficult names in South Africa.

In addition, out-of-home activations were strategically implemented in different regions with deliberately mismatched languages broadcast to introduce communities to other native languages besides the ones spoken in that area.

“People who were featured on billboards even shared pictures of themselves standing under their billboards. These were shared to social media. I think it meant something for these young people to be represented by the brand in such a personal way,” says Gordhan.

The project was one of the largest integrated campaigns ever tackled by FCB Joburg and has been awarded internally amongst FCB’s global creative executive committees. “Navigating the sheer volume of content that we created for the campaign to ensure diversity and inclusion was probably the biggest challenge. This was one of those liquid ideas that continues to allow us to expand our content arsenal,” highlights Bourquin.

The campaign received two shortlists at Cannes Lion this year, and Coca-Cola’s No Sugar offering, which featured across all content during the campaign, has experienced an increase in sales.

“I believe that this campaign is relevant to our times – a time in South Africa when social cohesion is more necessary now than ever before,” concludes Gordhan.


Senior art director: Jonathan Wolberg

Senior copywriter: Paul Frade

Art directors: Jeremy Miller and Yaseen Mahomed

Director and photography: Fausto Becatti

DOP: Fabian Vettiger

Editors: Daniel Mitchell, Tumi Ditshego, Joe de Ornelas, Keno Naidoo, Jarryd Du Toit, Mohammed Chopdat

Previous articleIn conversation with award-winning director Nare Mokgoto
Next articleLawo successfully passed JT-NM Interop Test
Gezzy S Sibisi
Gezzy S. Sibisi is a senior journalist at Screen Africa. She is experienced in print, broadcast and digital media. Her portfolio of work includes working as a lifestyle reporter as well as contributing business and education articles to The Times, Sowetan, and Daily Dispatch publications. As a freelancer, she has worked on content development for corporate newsletters, community newspapers, blogs and educational websites.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here