In his book How Brands Become Icons, marketing expert Douglas Holt lays out his theory of brands that transcend simple commercial strength and assume a role as cultural icons. Coca-Cola is one of his examples. He theorises that whereas standard branding plans involve continuous restatement of a set of brand values, the iconic brand relies more on a series of dramatic performances that address and resolve existing cultural contradictions, cementing the brand’s position at the heart of the zeitgeist. Most of his examples involve adverts in which, for instance, black people and white people are nice to one another.
The “Teach The World To Sing”/”Buy The World A Coke” campaign features heavily in his analysis of Coca-Cola’s iconic development. A dramatic success on its debut in 1971, it gave Coke a worldwide sales fillip and cemented its status as one of America’s top brands. Holt argues that this was because its unifying message was what the US needed to hear in the troubled wake of our old friend, the Vietnam War. Whatever the truth of this, the New Seekers’ decaffeinated folk warble became an absolute monster of a hit, so maybe resonances were being struck somewhere.
The hit was so big, and so simple, that it made the crossover to playgroups and school assemblies. By 1975 or so, you could buy a chunky music box which, at the turn of a dial, would play the song’s melody while a frieze of smiling faces, apple trees, honey bees rotated gently to illustrate the lyrics. Somebody bought that music box for me, and so it is that – even though I wasn’t born at the time – this is my earliest musical memory from the list.
Not a particularly happy memory, though. I got bored of hearing the tune well before I got bored of bashing the box around, and my main recollection is of how the toy and the tune gave me an accidental introduction to sound manipulation, as holding the dial back or forcing it to turn faster would speed or slow the music. Listening to the New Seekers now the song is as repetitive, static and chimingly cloying as I remember from the box. And, dramatic cultural performance or no, it sounds older than almost anything surrounding it: for all the horrid persistence of “Imagine” as a standard, this kind of singalong message song has vanished from pop’s remit.