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Coca-Cola: thinking outside the bottle

December 2015

By Tom Benner, Future Ready Singapore

This article, edited by Claire Slattery and Goh Wei Ting, was first published on Future Ready Singapore in September (www.futurereadysingapore.com).

When you are the most famous soft drink in the world and you are selling the exact same product made with the same secret formula for 128 years, you have what may be called the Coca-Cola Challenge: how to make an old and familiar brand seem new and exciting.

The 128-year old history of Coca-Cola offers interesting
lessons on how to drive business and innovate with exactly
the same product solution across time, generations and
markets (photo: © iStock/Dimitar Petarchev).

It’s a tall order. There is more than USD1 billion in retail sales annually across 207 countries (that’s all but two countries in the world). How do you keep the brand experience fresh, every day?

Today we tend to think that innovation is about finding new ideas – discovering ground breaking solutions and launching new products that drive incremental business value.

However, the history of Coca-Cola has shown us how to drive business and innovate with exactly the same product solution across time, generations and markets.

Coca-Cola calls this approach – Constant Reinvention: it’s about refreshing and constantly reinventing the assets you already have.

While the product inside a Coke bottle has not changed since its invention in 1886, marketing the product has been evolving with the times and keeping up with consumers ever since.

Call it thinking outside the bottle

“What we have been doing is innovating around the magic formula,” explains Cristina Bondolowski, Coca-Cola’s head of marketing for Southeast Asia. “As you can imagine, it is a huge challenge for us every day, the pressure that we have in terms of how do we keep it going, how do we ensure that people have that real moment of happiness at least once a day.”

The formula for what’s inside the bottle remains a fiercely guarded secret, but Ms. Bondolowski discusses the four major ingredients for what is outside the bottle.

Ingredient one: understanding people

Understanding consumers and finding insights into their likes and preferences was easy in Coca-Cola’s earliest days, but made harder when distribution grew to worldwide proportions, Ms. Bondolowski says.

While this led to research to capture consumer insights, a direct connection with consumers was still needed.

“There were a lot of intermediates in the middle and obviously it was difficult to capture that point of view,” she notes.

Of course, technology and social media have changed all that and will continue to make it easier for companies, big and small, to interact directly with consumers.

“The biggest revolution we are experiencing today that is making us compete in a democratic way with smaller and bigger players is technology. Technology is impacting innovation, marketing and how we understand consumers,” says Ms. Bondolowski.

Technology is enabling Coca-Cola to close the communication loop with its consumers. She adds: “Suddenly we have direct interaction with our consumers and we know what they are thinking. We can even co-create the next innovation through communication. It’s opening up a whole new world.”

Ingredient two: keep a differentiated offer

Iconic brands, such as Coke or the Volkswagen Beetle, have to reinvent their images and show relevance to the times, Ms. Bondolowski says.

Coca-Cola’s selling point is that the product delivers refreshment – a message that goes back to Coke’s beginnings. Its expression of optimism and association with good times has remained relevant through the highs and lows of its 128-year history.

In the 1930s, Coke was marketed as a tonic to help you get through tough economic times; in the post-World War II years, as a symbol of happy times; and in the culturally divisive 1960s, as a beloved soft drink that brings different people together.

Ms. Bondolowski says the one thing that has really kept the brand alive and maintained its connection with consumers over time is how the company talks about itself. “It’s not just about what’s inside the bottle; it’s about what the brand stands for, what makes it connect with consumers. This cuts across genders, it cuts across cultural differences, it cuts across geographies.”

“If you do this messaging well, it’s one of the biggest pieces of innovation you can have to keep that message alive,” she adds.

Ingredient three: pushing the boundaries to deliver the message

Only about 10 per cent of Coke’s buzz on social media is generated by the company. The rest is generated by consumers. Coke’s job is to communicate its contact points and contribute to conversations in ways that are creative and inventive.

An example is its commercial called Security Cameras, which is made up of actual footage highlighting everyday small, under-celebrated good deeds that take place around the world.

The Security Camera ad is in keeping with Coke’s positive and life-affirming message. Security cameras around the world capture some of the lowest moments in human behavior – but they also capture some of the most beautiful. It’s a feel-good reminder that kindness, bravery and love are everywhere.

“Anyone could have come up with that idea and pulled the information together, you don’t need a big budget. We did it because we are being forced to rethink how we do marketing. You don’t need money, you don’t need scale. It is really democratic to compete in today’s market,” she says.

Ingredient four: scaling fast

Coming up with new ideas is only half the battle – the other half is getting them out the door and into the market before a competitor comes up with something similar.

“One of the biggest challenges for us internally is not about coming up with the idea, it’s how do we scale it fast. Because we know we have a lot of people competing with similar ideas.”

One motto the company looks to for innovation is – Remain Constructively Discontent.

This kind of thinking leads to new ideas, such as the PlantBottle, the first ever fully recyclable PET plastic beverage bottle made from plants. Or the world-famous “Share a Coke” customize and personalize campaign, which allowed consumers to share a virtual Coke with a loved one far away.

“When you are able to scale it fast, it has a multiplier business effect,” Ms. Bondolowski says. “If Innovation = Ideas X Execution, we need Ideas for constant adaptation and excellence in Execution to drive scale.”

And so the recipe for what’s outside the bottle:

  • Understanding people.
  • A brand that means something to consumers.
  • Delivering the message in new and effective ways.
  • Delivering [the above points] fast.

These four ingredients are what help keep an iconic brand new, every day; borrowing on its tradition, its history, its reputation, and driving innovation with new experiences, new brand extensions, and acquisitions. That's how Coke plans to remain relevant to new generations – as it has always tried to do.

The WIPO Magazine is intended to help broaden public understanding of intellectual property and of WIPO’s work, and is not an official document of WIPO. The designations employed and the presentation of material throughout this publication do not imply the expression of any opinion whatsoever on the part of WIPO concerning the legal status of any country, territory or area or of its authorities, or concerning the delimitation of its frontiers or boundaries. This publication is not intended to reflect the views of the Member States or the WIPO Secretariat. The mention of specific companies or products of manufacturers does not imply that they are endorsed or recommended by WIPO in preference to others of a similar nature that are not mentioned.