Stefanie Miller Reflects on Coke's Legacy of Advocacy Advertising

Zach Brooke
AMA Higher Ed Symposium
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Key Takeaways

What? Coke's senior vice president of strategic partnership marketing​, Stefanie Miller, oversees global brand messaging for one of the world's most famous products.


So what? Miller's approach to managing a behemoth brand is to strive for inclusive moments of small choices, and sometimes to take a stand or riff on social issues.


Now what? Take a stand that brings people together. 

Nov. 12, 2017 

Stefanie Miller, senior vice president of strategic partnership marketing for The Coca-Cola Company. 

Coke has one of the largest audiences in the world. According to Miller, there are only two countries in the world where Coke isn’t sold. She didn’t name the two outliers, but basic research shows them to be Cuba and North Korea.

With the size and diversity of that reach, Miller has her work cut out for her creating messages that will resonate everywhere. The solution, she says, is to “focus on small moments of joy.”

Miller spoke at length about how her job isn’t to sell a lot of pop, but to save the world. That might seem a bit beside the point, but she offered many of examples of Coke making positive contributions to society through its marketing.

Miller began her look back in 1955, the year of Rosa Parks and the Civil Rights landmark Montgomery Bus Boycott. That same year Coke hired Mary Alexander, the first ever black woman to appear in its ads. Miller played a video where Alexander reveals how much that opportunity meant for her and her family in terms of pride and compensation. She was able to transition from the modeling world to launch a career as high school teacher and later principal.

Coke revived the Civil Rights focus 14 years later, with a print ad titled “Bench” that pictured three black teens and two white teens mingled together on a segregated bench. Miller says the company made a conscious decision to have the legs one of two models of different races touching in the center of the ad. “It might not have sold more Cokes in the short-term, but in the long-term, it made our views very, very clear,” Miller says.

The pinnacle of the race relations themed Coke ads occurred two years later in the famous “Hilltop” commercial, which Miller calls, “arguably the most valuable creative we have.” In the iconic spot, a group of multi-ethnic free-spirited youth singers assemble atop an Italian hillside and belt out an ode to peace and equality brought about through sharing Coke.

Miller then teleported the brand’s story to the 1990s, and pitched its equally memorable 1994 spot featuring corporate women ogling a male construction worker as a continuation of social progress. She says the spot shows empowered, white-collar women objectifying a man for a change, and that radical departure from perceived cultural norms at the time makes the ad a sneaky agent for social change.

“Understand the social context in which you live,” Miller says.

For the past decade, Coke has messaged off the rampaging force of social evolution that is the digital world. An ad from 2007 served up a loveable parody of the Grand Theft Auto franchise, with the defiant masculine protagonist, Ray, using his powers of aggression and improvisation for good. These theme of broadcasting a beacon of hope into an often hateful digital landscape was showcased again in 2015, this time on the world’s biggest ad stage during the Super Bowl. The ad started by showing humans looking hurt to after reading hateful messages directed toward them. Their frowns are turned upside down when the word Coke washes out the message and replaces it with an uplifting, affirmative one. The spot ends with the social media tag #MakeitHappy.

“As a mother of three and two teenagers, that one really speaks to me,” Miller says.

This relentless push for positive interaction continues today on over 100 college campuses, where Coke recruits ambassadors. These students are put through an in-depth training program where over the course of three days they meet with brand managers, senior leaders and receive social media training.

They are then turned loose to create their own campaigns specific to their university. One former ambassador, Alyssa Kirsch of Colorado State, created a video that describes the worldwide impact of the Coke logo. In a statement that would have been unthinkable a generation ago, Kirsch looks directly into the camera and says, “Wherever I go, I carry the Coca-Cola brand in my heart and in my actions.”


Another ambassador, Southern Methodist University’s Frankie York, organized a back-to-school get together. All these efforts can be described, Miller says, as examples of work that unites rather than divides.

 2017 Higher Ed Video Interview with Stefanie Miller & Russ Klein, CEO, AMA

Author Bio:
Zach Brooke
Zach Brooke is a staff writer for the AMA’s magazines and e-newsletters. He can be reached at or on Twitter at @Zach_Brooke.
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