Home >Industry >The relevance of a 120-year-old idea

A brand should remain true to its DNA even in times of crisis," asserts Marc Mathieu, senior vice-president, global brand marketing and creative excellence, The Coca-Cola Co. This marketing philosophy is probably what helped the company sail through recent market challenges such as growing health concerns and changing consumer priorities. Mathieu argues that marketing is not just about advertising and brand communication. “Marketing is about business. It is about creating a sustainable growth model for the brands and for corporations," says the man who has spent more than 24 years in the business of marketing, 11 of them managing various Coca-Cola brands.

Marc Mathieu, senior vice-president, global brand marketing and creative excellence,The Coca-Cola

He is also credited with the launch of the much talked about aluminium version of Coca-Cola’s trademark contour-shaped bottle, and it was under his leadership that Coca-Cola came up with one of its widely appreciated marketing campaigns in recent times—The Coke Side of Life.

Mathieu was in New Delhi recently and spoke with Mint on the challenges and opportunities for brand Coca-Cola in the midst of a fast-chang-ing consumption landscape. Edited excerpts:

What challenges has the uproar about carbonated drinks being unhealthy created for Coca-Cola and what role has marketing played in ensuring this doesn’t impact the brand’s equity among its target group?

Coca-Cola is a 120-year-old idea. It’s an idea about refreshment, positivity, happiness, optimism and democracy. All these values were relevant (then) and continue to be relevant to people across geographies and cultures, and that’s what has helped in keeping our brand equity among our target group intact. Indeed, there have been some challenging times, but we have sailed through them by remaining true to our DNA. You can’t fool people by projecting yourself as something that you are not. If you are a beverage that stands for refreshment, it will do you no good to project yourself as a nutritional product and vice versa. We have tried to make consumers more aware of our products and the value they get from them. It is critical for people to know exactly what they consume. And, empowering consumers has helped us win their trust and keep our relationship with them alive.

Is there one marketing principle behind all of Coca-Cola’s efforts? If so, what is it?

Marketing is not just about advertising. Marketing is about the business. It is as much about creating a sustainable growth model for the brands as any other function, such as finance or strategy, is. Marketing involves the company, the people behind it, and the products they produce. Any discrepancy at any level will do a brand a lot of harm.

As for our marketing strategy, it has involved giving consumers more, and better, choices—at prices they want. Our marketing strategy has involved both product innovation, as well as making the company and our culture more receptive towards people, society and the planet. Our new campaign, ‘The Coke Side of Life’, is all about creating a balance in individual lives, balance in our social lives and balance on the planet. It is about making consumers more aware of the choices they have, and the choices they make.

But, some of your marketing initiatives seem more superficial. Calling carbonates sparkling drinks is nothing but an euphemism. And, if consumers have become more aware, then don’t you think they can see through this deception?

Brands, while keeping their basic proposition constant, have to evolve and change with the times. They have to keep pace with consumer lifestyles, the consumption climate and the economic culture they operate in, which explains why we haven’t still launched Coca-Cola Zero in India.

As for sparkling drinks, it is a very contemporary appellation. Carbonated drinks are sparkling drinks, so there is no deception there. If there was any deception in this, the Coke trademark wouldn’t grow the way it is growing. Coca-Cola as an enterprise is growing, our brands are growing, and the market share is growing. We, despite increasing competition, remain the world’s number one beverages company. You could have called it a deception if we had changed Coca-Cola’s name to something else. Our brand name and the product remain the same.

Why has Coca-Cola confined itself to beverages only? Your rival Pepsi has done itself good by diversifying into the foods business. If marketing is about growing businesses and brands, then don’t you think you have missed out on a crucial growth opportunity?

The beverages market, globally, is one of the biggest and the most promising in terms of growth opportunity. There are still many more niches that remain unexplored and unoccupied in this space. That’s the reason Coke has decided to remain focused on beverages. We are a full beverages solutions company, and we will continue to grow this space with our innovations.

Other companies diversified into foods and other businesses because they could never take us on in the beverage market. They were forced to look elsewhere because they could never break our stranglehold. If we were to diversify into other segments, we would end up diluting the equity Coca-Cola has built in the beverages space over the past so many years.

Of course, the consumption climate is changing. There are consumers who have become more health conscious and want more than refreshment from their beverages. For them, we are constantly innovating and refurbishing our product portfolio. The launch of Coke Zero, after Diet Coke, and Coke Blak are good examples here. But, different consumers have different needs. Some want refreshment, some want nutrition, and some just want to have fun. We will continue to give our consumers all the choices they seek.

How is your traditional product portfolio of carbonates doing vis-a-vis new and healthier products?

I don’t know about that, but it is a fact that consumers don’t make decisions in terms of buying a healthy or an unhealthy product. They make purchase decisions according to the social occasions, and their moods. And they want a whole array of choices for each moment. If they want to socialize, have fun, get drunk with friends, they will go for wines. But, if they are going out for a dinner where they are likely to have some social conversation, they will go for spirits. And, if they want to celebrate, they will ask for Champagne. None of these are healthy in a way.

Still, these products are still consumed by people and these industries continue to thrive as ever. So, consumers need different solutions for different moments in their lives. Coca-Cola products fit into all such moments.

As for healthy and unhealthy choices, I would say there are healthy and unhealthy habits, and healthy and unhealthy people. Nothing could harm your system if you know your limits. If you are taking good care of your system by pumping in enough nutrients and by exercising, you can afford to have some fun without any guilt. That’s the reason we are talking about balance in individual lives, balance in our social lives and balance on the planet.

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