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
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?