The just-drinks Interview - The Coca-Cola Co's CMO

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The opportunity to grab some time with the chief marketing officer of a company the size of The Coca-Cola Co. doesn't come along very often. However, when just-drinks was invited to Zurich by the company last week, the chance to have an audience with Joe Tripodi was the clincher. Olly Wehring puts the questions to Tripodi, and his time starts... now.

We're against the clock here in Zurich. Having spoken at the launch in the morning of Coca-Cola's sponsorship programme for next year's World Cup football tournament, Joe Tripodi has interviews lined up with media from across the globe for the rest of the day. That just-drinks gets to speak to him first could be good or bad - will Tripodi need to warm up first, or will he be fresh for a grilling?

Thankfully, he's ready from the get-go. The most obvious topic to ask the head of marketing at Coca-Cola about is the charge of fuelling obesity that is laid almost daily at Coca-Cola's door. How to counter that charge and subsequently market that stance appears to be something Tripodi is looking at dealing with head-on going forward. "It (obesity) is something that we're taking on very aggressively," he says.

"We believe our beverages are fine for everybody in the appropriate moderation and with the appropriate exercise. It's all about calories in and calories out. To put all the blame for health and wellness issues on one industry is something we find ridiculous. It's very simplistic. Frequently politicians are looking for simple solutions to complex problems. We know it's a lot more complicated than that."

The company's huge campaign for its namesake brand behind next year's World Cup in South Africa, then, must surely be a wasted opportunity for Coca-Cola. With so many brands more healthy than Coke, why does the company not look to promote one of its less targeted products?

"You're merely saying that calories are bad," Tripodi counters, "We don't think that's necessarily the case. Calories are only bad if you're taking in too many that you aren't expending. That is our view - we're not in denial that there are issues on health and wellness and obesity in society, but one thing that we are going to be doing through all our marketing is significantly dialling up more aggressively the commitment to engage kids with active, healthy lifestyles.

"We don't have our heads in the sand on this one," he continues. "We understand the issues, we understand the headwinds. We also understand that there are a lot of simplistic solutions being thrown on. Once people step back, they'll realise that the taxing of calories will mean starting taxation on cookies, candy and ice creams. So let's outlaw desserts, and outlaw consumer choice!"

Joe Tripodi, chief marketing and commercial officer, executive vice president, The Coca-Cola Co.

Looking more closely at Coca-Cola's approach to marketing, Tripodi explains that engaging with consumers has seen very rapid changes in the last few months, the scale of which he describes as "fairly dramatic".

"In some markets," he says, "it's still going to be a 30-second television model, while in some markets it's much more of a mix, including strands like social networking and consumer loyalty programmes."

In the US, the company has a consumer database of around 13m names through its digital MyCokeRewards platform. "When you have that kind of database, you can really start to build a relationship with consumers that's very different than you would normally," Tripodi explains. "Plus, you start to evolve your thinking relative to how you engage them. It's beyond simply giving them a free t-shirt. I always say that t-shirts are not a strategy.

"One of the things we're talking about now, when we consider how we evolve as a marketing entity around the world, is the notion of a far more aggressive digital presence. Where we're going to be going more and more will be content managers - developing very compelling content, some of it we'll buy, some of it we'll create ourselves, some of it the consumer will generate. Our ultimate aim is to flex that content over different digital endpoints."

So, does this herald the end of the 30-second television ad in the near future? "No," he answers. "That depends on the market. I don't necessarily see that occurring in the near-term. If you're going to launch a new product, for example, the greatest reach and frequency is television. Having said that, what we find in our developed markets is that that mix is changing, between how much we're putting into television, social media, digital platforms, out of home."

With a brand as well-known as Coke, the company has a historical tendency to 'globalise' its message, much like McDonald's, for example. How does the company work towards getting as global a marketing approach as possible?

"It's easy with a brand that has a lot of heritage, like Coca-Cola," Tripodi says. "That brand tends to stand for the same thing all round the world, particularly around the notion of positivity, happiness and bringing people together. Earlier this year, when we launched our new global campaign 'Open Happiness' - which is now in 80% of our total volume worldwide - what we tried to do was strip it down and find out what the brand essence is. Then we look for the core creative idea that we're really driving for."

Tripodi credits Coke's success on the world stage to the consistency of consumers' perception of what the brand stands for. "Where you get schizophrenic and you're all over the place or you're chasing the new cool, that tends to create problems for you long-term. We think that Coke red and Coke Zero represent big opportunities for us to deliver very consistent messaging into the market place about what the brands stand for."

Returning to the process, Tripodi prefers to hear from the field than to issue diktats out of head office in Atlanta. "There needs to be a level of engagement in a process so that people have an input and that it makes sense to them," he says.

The PRs are starting to look at their watches, and the next reporter is starting to claw away at the door, but Tripodi seems happy to take one more of my questions. After the glamour queries, it's time finally for some nuts-and-bolts probing. When, in August, PepsiCo finally reached a deal to buy out its major bottlers, PepsiAmericas and Pepsi Bottling Group, Coca-Cola distanced itself from this approach to consolidation with its own bottlers. Why? "We believe very strongly that this is a business at a local level that is best left in the hands of a local distributor," Tripodi explains. "We believe entirely in the franchise model and the franchise system, that's the path for success for us. We've got a good model where, if we have a bottler that is under-performing, we'll go and take the bottler over, install new management, fix it up and then spin it back out. But we don't want to be in the business where we're owning and managing the bottlers outright.

"We believe that having a local bottler that's connected to that community with a local distribution system and all that infrastructure is a much better play for us and a much better opportunity for success and to be able to win locally, than it is trying to merge both the bottler and the manufacturer."

Time's up.

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