OPINION: Mills on ... Coca-Cola’s Marketing

I don’t know who it was at the Financial Times who persuaded Coca-Cola’s chairman, Douglas Daft, to write a 1,500-word piece last week explaining why the Atlanta giant had screwed up so badly in the past 12 months, but I take my hat off to them. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a corporate mea culpa of that magnitude before and certainly not one from a company historically as close-mouthed as Coke.

I don’t know who it was at the Financial Times who persuaded

Coca-Cola’s chairman, Douglas Daft, to write a 1,500-word piece last

week explaining why the Atlanta giant had screwed up so badly in the

past 12 months, but I take my hat off to them. I don’t think I’ve ever

seen a corporate mea culpa of that magnitude before and certainly not

one from a company historically as close-mouthed as Coke.



We shouldn’t pretend, however, that it was entirely a selfless act of

contrition on Coke’s behalf. The piece provided Daft with the

opportunity to slip the stiletto into his predecessor’s ribs, distance

himself from all that had gone before and lay out his plans for the

future.



It is this that makes the article such a riveting read. Henceforth, Daft

declared, Coke had a new mantra: no longer was it ’think global, act

local’ - a philosophy to which, as their ads showed, Coke mostly paid

lip-service anyway - but ’think local, act local’. So say good-bye to

the multinational company and say hello to the multi local.



Now this is neat talk and it summarises the dilemma that many companies

of Coke’s ilk face. For it is certainly one of the paradoxes of

marketing life that the more powerful the forces of global capitalism,

the more consumers try to counter that by carving out a sense of

regional or national identity. As Daft aptly observed, Coke doesn’t do

business in markets but in societies. What this means is that it has to

stop treating consumers as neatly packaged groups that it can corral and

herd for its own convenience and start treating them as people with

feelings and sensitivities.



All of which is admirable. Indeed, judging by the new Diet Coke work, it

already seems to be putting this into practice in the UK. If it follows

through logically, then local Coke marketing executives should feel free

to hire agencies off roster, leading to an explosion of opportunity. To

see a successful example of this, Coke should look no further than

McDonald’s UK where the advertising and marketing is so tuned into the

sensitivities of the local market that, I am told, McDonald’s US

executives can only gawp and wonder. So it can work.



But here’s the odd bit. By trying to become more locally sensitive,

doesn’t Coke risk turning its back on both its corporate and advertising

heritage? After all, the flipside of being a multi local organisation

means trying to be all things to all people and that could easily lead

to the gradual dissipation of Coke’s culture.



The same applies to marketing. Ask yourself what Coke sells and the

answer is the ’American Dream’. Times may have moved on and the world

may be a global village, but that is as compelling a proposition today

as it was 20, 30, 40 years ago - indeed, in certain parts of the Third

World it is probably more compelling than ever.



There’s a parallel here with another multinational advertiser that

adopted a multi-faceted, heavily localised identity, only to perform a

humiliating volte face in the face of ferocious consumer opposition. But

then Coke isn’t British Airways, is it?



dominic.mills@haynet.com.



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