"They had to be able to take a little rejection," says Christy Amador, manager, content excellence at The Coca-Cola Company, with a laugh. She is talking about the "smile starters," a crew of eager young happiness ambassadors who hit the streets—some pedaling red bicycles—in countries all around the world clad in red T-shirts with the goal of eliciting smiles from people.
Their efforts are portrayed in "Smile Back," a two-minute video Coke posted on YouTube. And while there were some passersby who passed on handshakes and fist bumps, plenty of people grinned right back at the smile starters and engaged with them, and all it really took was a simple smile, or sometimes a gift. The smile starters handed out bottles of Coke, sunglasses, and hats, and in some cases, they even gave away the bicycles they were riding.
"I think what is so powerful is that the majority of people did smile, and they were all strangers. None of it was set up," says AJ Brustein, director, innovation for The Coca-Cola Company, noting his favorite scene, which got cut into two pieces in the video, has a smile starter getting a big grin out of a traffic cop in Pakistan.
This video full of smiling, happy people has been two years in the making and came out of an extensive crowdsourcing effort. "Crowdsourcing has been done before by Coke but never to this scale and never through the whole process," Brustein points out.
According to Brustein, Coke, which embarked on this project back in 2011, wanted to create a piece of content for worldwide consumption with the involvement of as many markets as possible. So the company first went to crowdsourcing agency Victors & Spoils with the brief: Where will happiness strike next? Victors & Spoils came back with a few concepts, including "Smile Back."
Coke liked the idea and floated "Smile Back" to its creative teams in markets worldwide to see who would be interested in participating in the making of the video. In the end, Canada, Tunisia, Chile, England, Jamaica, and Pakistan got involved. Each market took ownership of their portion of "Smile Back" and worked with MOFILM, which aggregates a global community of filmmakers that want to work with brands, to find local directors and produce videos that would later be stitched together to form one.
To create a sense of cohesiveness, Coca-Cola wrote a manual and gave it to each production crew. The manual offered guidance on everything from how to cast smile starters to what kind of bikes would work best to what type of cameras should be used to shoot the video. "We kept it loose enough to where they could bring a lot of their own creativity to the table," Amador stresses.
Allowing each market creative freedom paid off, according to Amador. She credits the locals with capturing the flavor of their individual markets as well as some lovely moments that showed how infectious a smile can be. She cited some examples: the scene on the subway in which the people who smiled back at the smile starter then smiled at other passengers and the final scene of "Smile Back" that has a girl who was given a bicycle reaching out to high-five a girl who skates by her on a bike path.