I have been waiting for a while to write this article. It is about my favorite brand that I served for 6 years. Six years in a big multinational is definitely not enough to say I know it all… However, it is definitely enough to feel a belonging. And belonging is such a strong feeling that can make you say I know my brand…
So I was waiting to make sure that I would be able to write like a cold blooded professional, but not like a depressed soppy ex. Yet, I still have that soreness about leaving The Coca-Cola Company and I am still a little bit sad knowing that we should have managed things better.
Yes, this is the ex psychology I am talking about.
I made peace with the possibility that a fully “let go” may take longer than I presumed. Although the healing begins just after you leave a toxic state behind, the brain refuses to accept the separation if you didn’t see it coming at the first place. No matter if you are cheated by a lover or a boss, it does not make any change. In both, you take things personally and start digging the old stories to find new reasons to justify the leave. At that early stage the brain does not acknowledge and accept the emotional state and it seeks for any logical explanation. It cannot process the wise advices like: “you should have done it before”, “you deserve better” or “a better life is ahead”. Because your amateur feelings cannot accept that professional “politics”, “cliques”, “interests”, “egos” can easily let you down even if you carry several medals on your chest.
Eventually, you can distance yourself and start to see things more clearly after a while. In my case, I started to see the obvious misfits a few weeks after I left. Yet it took months for me to realize how resistant I was to follow the agenda of my leaders and to see the vulnerabilities of their grandiose titles… No matter what the context is -the power always values obedience over sincerity for existential reasons. Anyways, it does not matter anymore, I just want to start something new. It is time to forgive & forget and fall in love again!
When talking about love, I was and I am honest about my love towards Coca-Cola brand. I really adore the brand. No matter if Coca-Cola lost its leadership on Interbrand’s ranking to Google and Apple. I still believe that it is the best brand in the entire human history, simply because:
– Both Google and Apple are Zeitgeist brands for now. They weren’t that strong 20 years ago and they might not be this indispensable in the next 20. Even 10 years ago -Microsoft or IBM- they were bigger than Apple & Google combined and multiplied by two… And after just those ten years we started to criticize Apple for example. We believe that things are not the same after Jobs, on top they ought to be thanking Samsung for Note 7 scandal. Think about Yahoo and Twitter: As a social media brand, Twitter was the star of 2009 elections, it was the medium to make people felt united… And now, although Trump gave his best to promote Twitter, Facebook’s fake news were more influential. Yahoo was the old Google, and Google might have been in their shoes if they have just made similar simple organizational & strategic mistakes. On the other hand, Coca-Cola is a popular global brand for ages. Even the bottle of Coca-Cola is the most well known commercial object worldwide with a 90% recognition ratio. Not iPhone!
– Both Google and Apple needed high performance in their wide product portfolio to keep competitive. They can never be dependent on one single product and their products are always on evolvement. Apple’s turning point was iPod 20 years ago; now they have iMac, Apple TV, iPhone, iPad, Apple watch… And they launch new innovative products at least twice a year: They launched 7 generations of iPhones only in 20 years. Google has YouTube, Drive, Docs, even Hang out and G+ are living. They keep that Beta mindset and they are never afraid of failure. They search, try, improve, push and continue with the best products. Survival of the fittest! They do not depend on a few species but a whole ecosystem of products. On the other hand, Coca-Cola is the same old Coca-Cola with a few variants (Zero, Light, Diet Coke, Life) that look like the same and do the same thing. Would you go back and stick to your first generation iPhone now? But you want the same old Coca-Cola taste for almost 130 years.
– Linked to the previous point, on a marketing and branding level – Google and Apple are driving the change, they are innovative. The way they design their products, their graphics and their communication are changing continuously. They try to keep themselves updated no matter what. Because they need to look young to keep being successful, they cannot afford to get old. Coca-Cola does almost nothing as a facelift: same old bottle, the same old logotype, the same old optimism idea. Only the implementation of the same old idea may look contemporary and the brand can keep its young spirit just with those ads.
Yet, these cannot explain why and how Coca-Cola brand value erodes. No matter how successful Apple and Google were, we should have done better to protect our brand value at least… For me, we did so little to adapt to the new era of individual empowerment, maybe only an emotional promotional campaign. We were late to listen to people and understand today’s needs. Those cranky miles of Coca-Cola weren’t very keen to go through a change and discharge its well-off status quo anyways.
Coca-Cola may be too big and too complex to reconsider other ways to make profit. Though we were thinking the same about the American automotive industry a decade ago. Nobody could have imagined that, that bankrupted GM would be awarded for the Car of the Year for 4 times in sequence in less than ten years. And even with an electric C class one! So maybe for some companies, change can only be possible when there are no other alternatives left.
In my opinion, The Coca-Cola Company could have benefited from that transformational period just after the Bailout, but there was no competition to force the Company. During those times PepsiCo made its bold move in favor of health trends, because they had other businesses at hand which forced them to change tracks to keep competitive in overseas markets. The Coca-Cola Company was left alone, and since they weren’t threatened by anyone, they just ignored the macro trends and even chose Mr. Kent as the CEO: A leader who was expected to be more aggressive on driving growth! Mr. Kent knew what this expectation meant clearly, so he just focused on making the shareholders happy by milking the cow more aggressively as if there is no future.
Since the company got addicted to profit making, a need for efficiency was also evident in time due to the decreasing consumption intent. So the Company went through a non-ending restructuring for the sake of efficiency which –in my opinion- made things even worse. Many talented people left or forced to leave Coca-Cola because the new structure was merely changing the status quo but strengthening it. So the efficiency target happened to be only about the headcount, it was neither improving the agility of the culture nor contributing the productivity of individuals.
On the other hand, restructuring had its share of a positive momentum as well… For example, in marketing, many corrective actions were being taken immediately. An operation of “making Coca-Cola great again” was kicked off to stop the alienation of the product. The strategy was very clear and it was to the point: We should not stop believing in our product. Yes, it is right! If you stop selling your product, why would people insist to buy it within these circumstances? However, despite this simple brilliant strategy, the communication was a little reactive and nostalgic which was neglecting the fact that the world has drastically changed in the last 40 years. I will not criticize the work that has been done in details, simply because I was part of the extended team in a way. So I’d rather not be critic.
For the ones who do not know: in Coca-Cola culture does not favor internal critics anyways. Optimism is likely to be interpreted as a need to be positive towards each other and less challenging. So it creates a tendency to be more appreciative, kind and constructive all the time. It is easy when things are going well, it creates such a bonding and a team spirit. However, when things are not going that well, it can be a little bit tricky. Because you have to walk on a thin line: you are encouraged to challenge your subordinates, peers or third parties to find improvement opportunities, but not your leaders… You can even be a little constructively discontent with your superiors but you have to trust your leaders. Because they are the ones that protect the frontiers of optimism. Because your leaders cannot fail. Because if it happens, our optimism would demolish! And where optimism ends, begins the panic.
The panic is even not that harmful for the optimists: It starts with a denial; this denial triggers a series of reactional actions that are purely nonsensical. When they recognize the lack of sanity, the silence follows, and a tiny storm: someone gets blamed but never pointed at. Yet it is enough for the rest to feel relieved, they go back to their jobs. At the end nobody gets fired, nobody develops any learning, nobody remembers what the real problem was… So practically, this optimistic culture functions on a very simple principle: Be proud and smile when everything is fine, ignorance is bliss when things go upside down!
Did you read about New Coke? After such a scandal, I read that nobody was fired! And except Zyman almost nobody left the Company, either. On contrary, everyone kept their heads high and insisted that they did everything right ignoring the worst marketing scandal of all times! And when figures start to go down drastically, they panicked and put the old formula on shelves calling it the Classic…. It became more confusing for people to get what they want: the new formula had the old name, and the old one had a new name… Then they renamed New Coke with the most brilliant product name in marketing history: Coke II. Yes, like, Henry IV… So no surprise that thinking about a formula change became a taboo in the Coca-Cola Company, although the new formula was the least of the problems. The mistake was giving too much credit in lame research results and neglecting the very fundamental marketing rules about the brand power. So in the optimistic culture of The Coca-Cola Company, it took one year to put the original product back on the shelves and they had to wait for more than 17 years to kill the new formula!
How about the sugar issue…? The Company did handle the case as if Bush handled Global Warming; with an ignorance hoping that the problem would extinguish itself in time. First, the Company insisted to keep growing with the same portfolio choices. Simply because the developing markets were giving no f*cks to sugar. However, as always, West Europe and California were the markets that made the problem famous around the world. They forced the Company to do something about it. So, the Company panicked, and all of a sudden started to air something that is very reactional and apologetic on TV, followed by more to tell us the sacrifices we need to make to drink a Coke. Then suddenly, they left these aside. Because they were reminded that they need to sell more Coke! They put new leaders on frontiers to reset and go back to the optimistic mode. Therefore, they started talking about the palates of feelings.
As an old friend and a relentless fan, I feel that the Company became too arrogant and ignorant to chose brand over profit. I believe that they are letting -the most iconic ever- brand to suffer just to keep the company profitable for a few more years.
Though, on a longer run, The Coca-Cola Company is nothing without Coca-Cola, but Coca-Cola can live without the Company. So it would make more sense to me to prioritize the brand love, rather than pushing for profit or sales at this stage. Because if your brand goes down, your product is nothing but another sugar water as Steve Jobs said.
And if I had the chance, I’d change only three things to make the brand stronger:
1. Finding the way to be the second biggest sugar buyer worldwide but not the first: Pushing old ideas like for portion control (moderation) and/or “One Brand” strategy (see the Megabrand Strategy in 1985 to save New Coke) are indirect and not enough. Both strategies feel like The Company is still in denial of its responsibility and trying to outsmarting others! But at this point a bold statement is needed to make people believe in an intentional shift and say: Coca-Cola does not push sugar anymore! And regular Coca-Cola might be more ready than ever to be humbler on shelves and stop being the lightening rod of sugar discussions.
2. Restructuring the HR: Coca-Cola lost many talents because of a lack on HR’s influence within the organization. The organization empowers leadership teams to give decisions in human resources and HR team is expected to simply support them. Therefore, the status quo can easily keep its way of doing things and protect its existence. The leaders (?) simply form their obedient teams to go through tough times with minimum hassles, and these teams transform into cliques and gangs to passivize everyone who do not simply ‘belong’! And those challenging ones are the best ones you can ever have! You need to create a unification through a harmony in diversity not a horrifying anthem of a bunch of his-master’s-voice officers.
3. Making a new interpretation of American Dream: Coca-Cola became an icon of an American dream through three cultural disruptions that The Coca-Cola Company enabled. And these disruptions resembled well with 3 values and principles that USA was built around:
a. The Coca-Cola Company took the risk to be in the battlefield during 2nd World War and tried to be the icon of Liberty which helped them to seed the idea of American Dream worldwide
c. Coca-Cola Company communicated against Vietnam War reminding the right of Self-government to American people
Beware! These cultural statements were all about USA. Since USA is not that popular anymore around the world and the old American Dream is dead; the new definition should be universal.
If we interpret American Dream as an idea of a better life for everyone, then we can realize that it was established with French Revolution anyways. It is universal, timeless and it can never die. It is the utmost ideal that all good people believe in.
A better life is possible, it can be projected and visualized… And we need to hold on to hope for it, more than ever. And a new optimistic era can start with a statement form The Coca-Cola Company. Yes, that Company is that strong, because that brand is much more influential than many countries.
But if you have better plans – be my guest. As Talking Heads say: “This ain’t no party, this ain’t no disco, this ain’t no fooling around.”
UPDATE: Mr CMO left the party early
UPDATE (April, 17): Pepsi is trying to become the new Coca-Cola, unfortunately in a very unauthentic way