AdAge.com, November 22 2009

Amid some 200 analysts, investors and media last week, Coca-Cola CEO Muhtar Kent made a confession.

“There was a period when our company did lose its way,” he said. “We were too internally focused and not focused enough on the changes taking place with our consumers and customers. In essence, we were too busy looking at the dashboard and were not sufficiently paying attention to the world outside of our windshield.”

We live in an ‘ADD economy,’ said Joe Tripodi, chief marketing and commercial officer, Coca-Cola, at a 2020Vision meeting last week. While Coca-Cola remains the dominant beverage company in the world, and controls nearly 51% of the global carbonated soft-drink business compared to Pepsi‘s 22%, according to Beverage Digest figures, it had, perhaps, been too focused on soft drinks at a time when other beverage categories were on the rise, said Bill Pecoriello, CEO at ConsumerEdge Research. “They were too inward thinking and missed a lot of trends that were happening,” he said. “There was a shift away from certain beverages and needs being filled by alternative beverages.”

Certainly, soft drinks remain a key focus for the company, but now it has also established dairy beverages as a global platform, with brands such as Vio and Minute Maid Pulpy Super Milky, and has set juice as its top priority after sparkling beverages. It’s also put more emphasis on innovation, with its venturing and emerging brands group, of which brands such as Zico, Honest Tea and Illy are a part.

Globally, Coca-Cola says it leads in sparkling, juice and juice drinks, ready-to-drink coffee, tea and active lifestyle, or enhanced waters. It is No. 2 in sports drinks and No. 3 in packaged water, which includes plain bottled water and bulk water, categories where there is stiff competition from the likes of Gatorade and Nestle Waters.

John Sicher, editor and publisher of Beverage Digest, also points out that between 2000 and 2004, when former CEO Neville Isdell arrived, the company struggled with management changes and simply wasn’t functioning well. “Today, in my view, Coke is really back to functioning at a high level again,” he said. “Relations with bottlers are good. There’s good morale inside the company. They’re recruiting good people and not losing people anymore. They’re really now focusing on the business and the brands.”

Multicultural plans
But the most significant changes appear to be in the multicultural space, which Ms. Bayne said will be a core focus for the company in the U.S. by 2020. Already, multicultural consumers account for 33% of all of Coca-Cola‘s U.S. volume, and given the population growth occurring in this country, by 2020, those consumers will make up 40% of U.S. volume.

“Our multicultural plans are now 12-month plans. It is no longer Hispanic heritage month followed by Cinco de Mayo,” Ms. Bayne said. “We have a deep connection through the World Cup with Hispanic males and through the novelas with Hispanic females.”

The company is also embracing a 12-month strategy for African-American consumers. “We’re really focusing on moms. Moms lead the decisions in this segment of the population, even more than others, so we’re really focusing on her,” Ms. Bayne said. “Also, [we’re] celebrating the historically black colleges and universities, Black History Month and connecting over music.”

The brand is also recognizing the power of consumer-generated content and social media. “Among Coca-Cola‘s most powerful differentiators are the stories only our brand can tell,” said Ms. Clark. “But we’re not the only ones that can tell our story. Much of our content comes from our consumers. It’s the phenomenon of social media. Consumers remind us daily that Coca-Cola is actually their brand, not our brand.” To that end, the company is launching Expedition 206, an ambitious global social-media push.

While it’s not entirely clear what the return on the program will be, Adam Brown, director-digital communications and social media, said the company will be monitoring fan participation and online share of voice, as well as increases in friends or followers. “One of the great things about digital and social-media programs is the ability to measure just about everything. This is critical for us to demonstrate ROI on an exciting and, in a way, experimental project like this,” he said. “I also think content sharing is a critical metric to watch. … That third-party credibility is magic.”