The Coca-Cola Company was founded on January 29th, 1892 in Atlanta, GA, six years after John Pemberton first asked some of his friends to sample his new concoction. According to Coke’s autobiography, the company sold about 9 servings per day at 5¢ per serving for the first year. Today, the company sells 1.9 billion servings each day across the globe.
In 2015, Forbes ranked Coca-Cola as the #4 most valuable brand in the world. And in 2014, a study by a brand equity research company called Coca-Cola the most recognized brand of the World Cup in Brazil. In other words, that familiar red color and the scripted words, Coca-Cola have power in the world, perhaps far beyond any other hyphenated phrase in the history of humanity.
At the same time, Coca-Cola has a large and growing body of detractors. These protestors cite studies about possible harm from artificial sweeteners, water waste, plastic bottles, and the amount of sugar in a single serving of Coke classic, and the negative health and environmental outcomes that lead from all of these factors. The issues with Coke’s core brands, along with the research to back them up, could make up a full-length book, so let’s save those for another day.
Let’s instead talk about how a visionary leader unburdened by dogma might choose to build the Coca-Cola company of the future:
- Immediately shift from short-term, quarterly-earnings-based planning to long-term, visionary planning
- Craft a new 15-year vision to become the world’s leading provider of health-conscious drinks
- Immediately shift the supply chain from high fructose corn syrup and conventional sugar to certified organic raw sugar
- Immediately eliminate all artificial sweeteners from the supply chain
- Find sweetener alternatives for diet and “zero-calorie” (Coke Zero, etc) drinks in the short-term; phase out all diet and “zero-calorie” drinks in the long-term
- Shift long-term planning from “core brands” to water and still products
- Concentrate on leveraging the Coca-Cola brand power and promise to redefine the meaning of one of those big red billboards – from unhealthy, sugary drinks to a visionary brand building a healthier future for the world
- Eliminate plastic packaging from the supply chain
- 100% biodegradable packaging by 2030
- Continue acquiring brands like Honest Tea and SmartWater to bring health-oriented brands in-house
- Refuse to bastardize acquired brands by “scaling them up” in the image of Coca-Cola. Rather, build the future Coca-Cola Company in the image of the acquired brands.
- Treat historically core brands as nostalgic treats or desserts to be enjoyed at a movie theater or ball game, and always from a fountain
- Stop funding research used to muddy the waters on health outcomes and deflect criticism of Coke’s historic products
- Build a marketing strategy around real, independent research on health outcomes of diet and exercise. At the same time, promote the role Coke’s new product portfolio of organic teas, still and sparkling water, vegetable juices, and fruit smoothies can play in a truly healthy diet.
- Use the old Coca-Cola as a case-study to educate the public about the dangers of sugar, artificial sweeteners, pesticides, and more
The list could go on, but the core message would stay the same. If Coke hopes to survive in an era of radical transparency, access to information, and activitist consumers, it will need to do business in a significantly different way.
Under current leadership, I’m almost certain none of these changes will take place. Instead, it will take a leader from a new generation, who understands the future of business and sustainability. And that’s why this almost certainly won’t happen: quarterly earnings, tired old-school thinking, and fear. Fear of changing a massive organization built on a foundation of deception and unhealthy beverage options; fear of the unknown; fear of the hard work.
If you work in a company like Coke, speak up. Share your opinion internally. Help the right leaders make their way up the ladder. We need them. We need you.
If it chooses to put its resources to good use Coke could wield one of the most powerful brand in the world the create positive change. Without such an approach, I’m sad to say that the world might just be a better place if Coke slowly fades away into irrelevance at the hands of poor financial performance and lack of consumer support.