As a homeless teenager, singer-songwriter Jimmy Wayne’s life turned around when he met an elderly woman, Bea Costner, who hired him to cut her lawn every week. She would compensate him with $20 and a Coca-Cola, and he ended up living with the Costners.
He has told that story through the years at concerts; in his book, Walk to Beautiful; and, more recently, on his blog. Wayne finally got to recount it to a gathering of Coke executives on April 20.
“The room just cheered like you wouldn’t believe,” he says. “I was like, ‘Man, this is not a one-time speech. I’ve been trying to get your attention for 18 years.’ ”
Appropriately, Coca-Cola is now using one of Wayne’s songs, “I Love You This Much,” among just seven country copyrights in its new Share a Coke and a Song campaign, which debuted April 18. It’s an extension of the Share a Coke program in which people’s names were imprinted on the soft drink’s labels. Those names are now replaced by the title — or a key lyric — from a song.
Taylor Swift’s “You Belong With Me,” Faith Hill’s “The Way You Love Me” and Willie Nelson’s “Always on My Mind” are among the country tracks in the effort, which uses approximately 70 songs total. They range in eras from Charlie Puth’s current pop single “One Call Away” to the public-domain composition “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” and in styles from Bachman Turner Overdrive’s classic-rocker “Takin’ Care of Business” to Carlos Vives’ Latin-pop release “Ella Es Mi Fiesta” (“She’s My Party”).
“We wanted to use the lyrics that connect people and create those moments of sharing,” Coke global head of music Joe Belliotti told Billboard in March. “This was not about finding the most popular songs of today. This was about finding lyrics that can help you connect with someone. Because at the end of the day, music and the lyrics in songs help you express what you sometimes aren’t able to put into words yourself.”
Using phrases to connect people isn’t an entirely new idea.
“It’s like those Valentine’s [Day] sweet-tart things that have those little messages on them,” says Shane McAnally, a co-writer of Kacey Musgraves’ “Follow Your Arrow,” which is also in the campaign.
And using music isn’t a new idea for Coca-Cola, either. A 1971 Coke ad built around “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing” is widely regarded as among the most effective spots in history (one of its writers, British-born Roger Cook, became a Nashville songwriter, responsible for Don Williams’ “I Believe in You” and George Strait’s “One Night at a Time”). Dottie West’s “Country Sunshine” was also part of a Coke campaign.
In this modern Coke/music hookup, the songs on the labels can be scanned with the Shazam app, allowing consumers to hear a part of a track — and maybe become aware of the artist — and create a lip-synch video that they’re able to share.
“Coca-Cola should fit anyone, no matter who they are — whatever race, whatever job they do,” says “Always on My Mind” co-writer Mark James. “Coca-Cola has been around so long that it’s just one of those icon things. You’d miss it if it wasn’t here anymore.”
Coke, in fact, is extremely protective of the brand. The recipe for its syrup is a closely guarded secret, and its marketing efforts — particularly after its New Coke debacle in 1985 — are meticulous.
“The world we’re living in today, everybody has to be so diplomatic about what they believe in and [whether they] might offend somebody,” says Wayne. “I thought, ‘Wow, I can hardly believe they’re going to print my song on their cans and bottles.’ ”
Coke had to pass a test, too — and not the Pepsi challenge. A line from Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the U.S.A.” — “I’m proud to be an American” — is included in Coke’s campaign, but Greenwood isn’t in a hurry to license it to everyone.
“I wouldn’t put it on a beer label,” says Greenwood. “But if Coke wants to use it, I think it’s really cool to be associated with America’s most popular and well-known brand.”
Coke has not revealed details of the deals it made with publishers, though Greenwood says it’s a favored-nation agreement — thus, every title receives the same compensation — and both sides hold an option to continue the association after one year.
That said, it’s difficult to believe that anyone who thought the deal was a winner beforehand would want to get out of it after being associated with the iconic Coke logo.
“It’s my favorite soft drink and it always has been,” says “Follow Your Arrow” co-writer Brandy Clark. “I just love the way it looks. I love the glass bottles. To me, it’s American. It’s like Ford and Chevy and Coke — but actually, Coke goes above Ford and Chevy for me. You know, it’s like the [New York] Yankees.”
Clark is tied to one of the minor pitfalls in the program. She received a Grammy nomination this year for her album cut “Hold My Hand,” which is a title that’s featured on some Coke bottles. Her fans might think it’s her song that’s being licensed, though more consumers are likely to associate the title with Darius Rucker — “Hold My Hand” was Hootie & The Blowfish’s 1994 breakthrough hit. But the actual track in question, determined by using the Shazam app, is Jess Glynne’s 2015 release “Hold My Hand,” which reached the top 10 on Billboard’s Hot Dance/Electronic Songs chart.
Less problematic is Luke Bryan’s “I Don’t Want This Night to End,” which — much like Wayne’s song — represents a personal Coke connection to Dallas Davidson, one of Bryan’s three co-writers. The Share a Coke campaign phrase is ironic in his case — Davidson’s grandmother gave out Coca-Cola stock certificates at Christmastime, essentially sharing shares of the company. The Georgia-born Davidson still holds his stock in the business, which he visited during a school function as a kid.
“That’s a pretty big deal how it all comes full circle,” says Davidson. “You’re touring Coca-Cola when you’re 7 years old, and then when you’re 38 years old, they’re putting your song title on the side of the can. That’s pretty badass.”
This article first appeared in Billboard’s Country Update — sign up here.