Case: Coca-Cola Company

Case Studies

Case: Coca-Cola Company

Robert Buckner Foye is the chief marketing, customer, and commercial officer for The Coca-Cola Company’s Greater China and Korea Business Unit. China is the third largest market in the world for the company, and roughly 50,000 employees, including bottlers, work for The Coca-Cola System in China.

What are the key challenges in branding an iconic American product within a market that is vastly different from ours?

One challenge is cultural differences. For example, in China most families include one child living with four adults. Those four adults are keyed into the safety of the child. Product safety and quality become very important and are integral to brand success.

How about competition and the way the Chinese communicate?

The hypercompetitive environment is a major challenge. Marketing must cut through the clutter to grab the consumer’s attention—also, the way Chinese consumers obtain and process information, which is largely on the Internet. There’s a greater emphasis than in the U.S. on both digital communication and word of mouth. In addition, the concept of consumer loyalty is still developing. Consumers here have a broader brand repertoire: Their choices are less constrained, whereas, in the U.S. and in Europe consumers tend to be more brand loyal.

What is Coca-Cola’s key brand message for 2013, and how will you promote it?

“Happiness Created in China” is the core message. Our aim is to establish brand love—the emotional connection—so that people will say, “Hey, this is my favorite brand. I love it and want to drink it every day!” We must also communicate the functional elements of the brand—the energizing refreshment aspect of Coca-Cola. And then comes promoting Coca-Cola “occasions”—those times when Coca-Cola would be the perfect complement, like with family meals.

And what about brand promotion?

In-store, point-of-sale activity is very important in China. Consumers have a broad repertoire of products to select from in your category. Seventy percent of purchase decisions are made right on the spot, in-store. So, how well you merchandize and display your product, how well you promote it, and having the right shelf space and merchandising are critical. Consumer interactive content is also important—in other words, getting customers engaged in your brand message, whether it’s delivered on mobile phones, the Internet, or on TV. For example, we invite consumers to answer the question: Who in your life creates happiness? We ask them to submit photos of these “happiness creators.” It reinforces the brand message.

What have you learned about managing the local workforce?

Always remember that you’re a guest in someone else’s culture. You’re not trying to bring your culture to China. You need to respect how people here do things. Yes, you need to bring what’s best in your culture, but you need to do it within the context of the local environment. Also, you need to be a good listener in a broad sense. You need to understand how people are feeling and reacting. You need to be flexible and adjust to people’s needs. Emotional intelligence is a key leadership quality, even more so than when you are operating in your own culture.

What is the composition of your leadership team?

It’s a real cultural cross-section. My team consists of executives from mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, the U.S., Spain, France, and Australia. They each run various parts of the business. For example: McDonald’s, tea and innovation, sparkling, stills—juice, water, and dairy, commercial, customer, etc.

I would imagine it’s tough to create a sense of e pluribus unum from such a diverse team.

Yes, it is—which is why I decided to adopt the horizontal, high-performing way of operating. I wanted everyone to understand that we were all part of one team. Either the whole team wins or it loses. In other words, the leadership team—and the levels below it—needed to be less siloed. Second, we wanted to get to know each other better in terms of our past, our cultural differences, and why we behave the way we do. Then, there were a few people who weren’t performing at the same levels as others. I wanted the team to feel comfortable bringing this out and suggesting ways for them (as well as themselves and me) to improve performance for the overall betterment of the team.

You mentioned getting to know one another better. Why?

My team is very experienced and capable. The challenge is taking people who are very capable in their own area and getting them to work together seamlessly to solve problems and make decisions faster. To accomplish this, you have to understand where your colleagues are coming from, why they think the way they do. You need to get to know the “why” behind the “what.”

I’m a fly on the wall at your next senior team meeting. What would I observe that’s different now that you’ve been through the alignment process?

When we meet as a team, you don’t see hidden agendas. You see team members cutting straight to a frank discussion of issues, solutions, and execution. There’s less “What about me?” and “How does this affect my area?” Sure, you’ll always see some of that, but we’ve made tremendous progress here. You also see greater openness and comfort in the team giving me feedback, less issue avoidance, and faster decision making.

Have you taken the high-performance process down to other tiers?

We took the next 60 or so people through the process and provided them, as well as members of the top team, with a variety of skills in conflict management, active listening, influencing, and leadership.

What has been your biggest “aha!” in your journey to a high-performance, horizontal team?

The importance of understanding the “why” better, both as a team and as individuals. All of us focus day to day on the “what”—what are the priorities, tasks, work plans, etc? But behind the “what,” it’s important to understand why this team exists, why behavior is this way, why it’s important to examine the reasons for doing this and not that. And, as individuals, why do you and I behave this way? When you understand the “why,” the “what” becomes far easier to discuss and execute.

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