Interview: Chris Gurney – ‘The Best Brands are Making Culture from the Inside’

A conversation with the Group Creative Director of Virtue APAC offering insights on creative work including a recent anime-infused campaign for Coca-Cola Creation’s ‘Soul Blast’.

Earlier this year the Coca-Cola company released the fourth of its Coca-Cola Creations dubbed “Soul Blast” via Virtue APAC. The timing was in line with the anticipated launch of the highly-popular anime series ‘BLEACH-Thousand Year Blood War’. The campaign, which makes use of anime as its creative device, features an AR experience that can be unlocked when you scan the Soul Blast can or a QR code on the website.

To learn more about the campaign and a wide range of other topics, we recently caught up with Chris Gurney, Group Creative Director at Virtue APAC.

Over the course of our conversation, Chris talks about Soul Blast, the strategy of using anime as a creative device, his reasons for joining Virtue, some trends he sees coming in 2023, and more.


 

Tell us about Soul Blast and how it came to life.

Coca-Cola Soul Blast is the fourth Coca-Cola Creations release of 2022, conceptualised and launched by Virtue to drive brand desire and cultural relevance for one of the most accessible, democratic brands on the planet.

Coca-Cola Creations is a platform dedicated to tapping into the cultural passion points of Gen Z with limited edition product innovations that trigger and inspire young people to rediscover the classic taste of Coca-Cola. Driven by collaboration, creativity and cultural connection, the platform introduces new flavours and experiences across the physical and digital world, bringing the iconic Coca-Cola trademark to new, fresh and novel expressions.

While the other three Coca-Cola Creations launched by Virtue tapped on various aspects of culture such as music (Starlight), gaming (Byte) and fashion (Dreamworld), Soul Blast was created to tap into the power of anime.

The cultural opportunity presented itself in the much anticipated final series launch of the world-famous anime ‘BLEACH-Thousand Year Blood War’.


 


To launch this monumental partnership between BLEACH – Thousand Year Blood War and Coca-Cola, an inside-culture approach was adopted to create an ownable, credible and meaningful role for this limited edition. Primary research involved a range of culture insiders ranging from anime artists, pop culture editors, and cosplay-inspired fashion designers, to academics and cultural anthropologists specialising in pop culture and anime fandom.

Previously a niche community in Asia, anime has grown to become part of mainstream global culture owing to its multi-layered narratives and complex characters, which reflect the hyper-nuanced and ever-changing world of today. Multi-faceted Gen Zs who reject conventional mono-labels are especially drawn to anime’s rich and exciting journey of self-exploration, as it gives them access to visualising new possibilities of identity and expression.

BLEACH: BLEACH: Thousand-Year Blood War, an anime that sees through the self-actualisation journey of the characters, set the perfect stage for this Coca-Cola Creations limited edition. This much anticipated airing is considered to be a monumental moment in pop culture.

A Soul Blast is a representation of the truest, most powerful version of ourselves. In line with tapping into the desire for genuine self-expression, this multi-phased campaign leverages this energy blast mnemonic to connect with Gen Z to enable them to explore and unlock more of who they really are.



What was behind the strategy of using anime as a creative device?

Virtue APAC, the creative agency powered by VICE, was involved in executing the strategy, creative ideation and campaign development to maximise the partnership with the ‘BLEACH: Thousand-Year Blood War’ anime series.

Building up to the release, we launched a series of content with influencers to hype the excitement for celebrating the unboxing and reveal the collaboration. We wanted to get fans closer to the action of “BLEACH: Thousand-Year Blood War” (new and old) by putting the power of the Soul Blast literally into their hands.

“Rather than building marketing in traditional ways and then trying to insert it into culture via interruption, we believe the best brands are making culture from the inside. This acts magnetically, drawing attention to itself”

An AR experience is unlocked when you scan the Soul Blast can, giving people different ways to unleash their Soul Blast through the Coca-Cola can. The AR experience will be available in selected markets with varying roll-out dates. Effects may vary according to local platforms.

A series of animated videos for use across social media, digital content, and out-of-home have been designed to amplify the visual impact of the combined Coca-Cola liquid and anime Soul Blast elements, accompanied by the original series soundtrack.

While we are still awaiting the official results, Soul Blast trended across Twitter in Japan and bilibili in China, ranking in the top 5 and 10 conversations respectively. While this limited edition was launched exclusively in North Asia (China, Japan, Taiwan, Macau), it is reselling on eBay at 10x the original price to an international audience, driving brand desire and cultural relevance for Coca-Cola on a global scale.

When you joined Virtue you talked about how the agency “places culture at the heart of how it operates. Can you talk more about that and what differentiates it from other agencies in the ad industry?

Rather than building marketing in traditional ways and then trying to insert it into culture via interruption, we believe the best brands are making culture from the inside. This acts magnetically, drawing attention to itself.

We call this insider marketing, and it’s how we do things at Virtue. We use cultural understanding to shape brands and make them more relevant, visible and valued. We build brands that shape culture, that are embedded and contributing to it.

We can do this because Virtue is a creative agency that operates from inside an award-winning media and entertainment group, providing us a unique vantage point from inside culture. From our extensive publishing (Vice, Vice World News, ID, R29, Munchies and Noisey) platforms that lead culture, to our production capabilities (Pulse, Vice Studios) across fiction, non-fiction and commercial content that shape culture, working with Virtue gives you the strategic and creative expertise of a creative agency, with direct access to the means to shape and create culture, operating from inside VMG, acting as a portal to all these varied capabilities, knowledge and talent.

There is much talk about the rise of creativity powered by data and technology. What’s your take on that and what it means for creative departments across the ad industry?

I am a big believer in ’Positive Adoption’, this really is the key into which creatives and creative departments as a whole can move with the times. I have been witness to the birth of a sh*t tonne of different tech during my creative upbringing. These different tech advancements were present in areas of my life and shaped the attitude I had with adopting new methods of using them to support the creative process and output of my ideas.

“We know that new areas of revolutionary technology come along every 3 to 5 years, although that gap seems to be shrinking. Creative departments need to embrace, to learn and to incorporate as much of this new technology into their toolboxes if they want to remain relevant and stay creatively connected.”

When Adobe Illustrator and Quark Express came out they killed the bromide machine, analogue typesetting, layout and airbrushing – pretty much full stop. The rise of digital cameras, 3D and motion graphics made set designers and clay modellers almost redundant (except on Japanese TV), but significantly improved the quality and expanded the possibilities of the creative output.

There’s a lot of conversation around AI-driven platforms like DALL·E 2 and Midjourney, GPT-3 etc which I see merely as tools for creatives to better experiment with and deliver more powerful executions  – they don’t replace the thinking.

This technology is actually powering the minds of creators to explore ideas and output in new areas of engagement and solutions in some pretty amazing categories including healthcare and sustainability.

We know that new areas of revolutionary technology come along every 3 to 5 years, although that gap seems to be shrinking. Creative departments need to embrace, to learn and to incorporate as much of this new technology into their toolboxes if they want to remain relevant and stay creatively connected.

What’s some creative work you’ve done over the years that you are most proud of?

I have been involved in a variety of inspiring creative work over the years, across a range of categories with a whole bunch of incredible people, within and beyond advertising.

Sneaker apparel and interior product design was a big interest for me early on. I had the opportunity to work alongside a close Japanese friend of mine whose family company specialised in handmade wood-crafted furniture. It was here where I created my first modern furniture range incorporating bamboo, tatami, kimono textures and centuries-old design techniques. The success of this work was being exhibited across Japan, France and Italy, and secured my first ‘Good Design’ Award.

“I am a big believer in ’Positive Adoption’, this really is the key into which creatives and creative departments as a whole can move with the times.”

The sneaker apparel brand I founded with a friend of mine was called Lace Lords and was based on a patent design which allowed the laces to create an image when they were laced in a certain way (stack laced). These were essentially dubbed ‘t-shirts for your shoes’ by Sneaker Freaker Magazine.

They were sold across Asia and Europe a few years back and even walked their way into the famous, now closed ‘Colette Store’ in Paris which was no mean feat!  (Lace Lords has since been paused but might make a comeback in 2023, watch this space.).

More recently, the work done with Toyota Motors Asia Pacific for the 2020 Tokyo Olympic/Paralympic games, is a campaign that I am also really proud of. This was because every person involved had the same passion and connection to the idea which at its core, was to bring a social good component to the platform, and not to simply focus on the athletes backstory or their potential medal opportunities.

This social good had to ignite the conversation towards an actionable cause that their fan communities could be a part of to help champion pressing social issues. The campaign was launched off the back of Toyota’s global START YOUR IMPOSSIBLE campaign.

See work here: web/campaign, Athlete story Ernie, Global (JP)

Within the digital and crypto art space, I have been working alongside a very good friend of mine Radarboy3000 on some experimental stuff that has been really fun.

We have dabbled in electro music, digital art, and installation over the years and he introduced me to motion reactive video back in the day (via processing) with RadarBoy founding and running the massively successful Crypto Art Week Asia for the past numbers of years, we have been playing around with generative NFTs, one project being Bad Cylons, and some others yet to launch.

Any creative trends you forecast for 2023 or any that you would like to see?

Fashion-wise, I see more access to AR/MR being pushed even further in digital/virtual shopper areas, potentially combined with new smart eyewear design that’s more affordable and easier to use.

Digital immersive art and IRL music events are merging, there is some cool stuff happening at Afterlife Printworks London (check out all those phones at 0:45). We will see more of this coming together with creatives realising the value to produce digital art doesn’t just sit in a wallet.

With the rise of digital collectibles as a form of swappable currency for use IRL as rewards, specifically for fan-based events, 2023 will bring more opportunities for creatives to explore these areas in greater numbers.

Creativity driven by AI and some new tools people are exploring, like ALPACA and Eb Synth with Stable Diffusion, DALL·E 2 and Mid journey are going to only get better, we should see some pretty cool stuff happening with these linked to the above.

The last one, Volumetric Display Technology is really amazing, check out the work that these guys are doing at VOXON which I think will start to take on a whole new adoption creatively in the next few years. (Hopefully no taser drones..yet)

 

Bobby McGill

Bobby McGill

Bobby is the founder and publisher of Branding in Asia.

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