Is Oades being eased out or promoted to the frontline?

Coca-Cola has appointed GB president Charlotte Oades to a newly created European role, apparently watering down her previous responsibility for the brand into a remit largely consisting of public relations duties.

From February 20, Oades – who has 20 years’ international management and marketing experience with Coke – will become director for corporate identity, public affairs and communications for the Coca-Cola European Union group. Her replacement – Coca-Cola Nordics regional director Sanjay Guha – has, says the company, “consistently demonstrated a great strategic and commercial mind”.

But Coke’s sidelining of Oades has puzzled many experts, who say she is highly rated at the company. Some observers believe the company wants new ideas at the highest level, as it struggles to meet consumers’ growing demand for healthier eating and drinking options.

Another theory is that Oades is being punished for the marketing disaster that was Dasani, the water brand Coke shelved two years ago when it was discovered to contain traces of chemicals linked to cancer. But one ad agency executive who has worked on the Coca-Cola account says: “Coke is still desperate for a water, but this isn’t about Dasani. Oades may have been responsible for the brand in the UK, but it was too long ago to be the reason behind this decision.”

Despite Coke insisting the move represents a promotion for Oades, the agency source says the fact she will have no profit responsibility suggests it is hardly a move upwards. Another observer close to the company says: “McDonald’s has worked hard on improving its public image and products. In the same way, this could be a savvy, if belated, move by Coke. Oades’ understanding of customer markets and consumer behaviour will be invaluable in a PR role, and could help her improve Coke’s reputation for engaging with the press and listening to the public.”

Another agency insider agrees: “Coke’s PR profile is a disaster. Its idea of a good news day is when it is not in the news. For years, its roster agencies have told it to improve its relationship with the press and create a culture of openness. Although it’s an odd move for Charlotte, the job certainly needs doing.”

In an internal Coke memo, seen by Marketing Week, Oades says she is “passionate” about the new role of “driving corporate engagement and corporate responsibility”. The memo, addressed to staff and sent from Atlanta, US, also talks of “proud and proactive communicationâ¦to touch and directly address the headwinds and obstacles we face”. Oades’ move, though surprising now, could be viewed in the future as the point Coca-Cola decided to listen to outsiders and take child obesity and corporate responsibility seriously.

Oades may have taken the rap for hostile trading conditions, or alternatively she may be at the forefront of a seismic change for the company as it seeks to catch up with rivals offering healthier alternatives. With the National Union of Students set to consider at its annual conference next month whether to follow many US universities in a Coca-Cola boycott over its corporate responsibility record in Colombia (Coke’s alleged complicity in the disappearance of several union officials), the change might not have occurred a moment too soon. One thing is certain, in order to succeed, Coke needs to examine every element of its portfolio, branding and corporate engagement to ensure it suits the changing priorities of the twenty-first century consumer.

Mark Choueke

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