Coca-Cola: The future is ‘AI meets human ingenuity’

A mixture of artificial intelligence and human ingenuity represents a path to future growth, says Coke’s European CMO Javier Meza.

Coca-ColaBrands looking to scale in 2024 and beyond should mix the usefulness of artificial intelligence with the power of human ingenuity, according to Coca-Cola president of marketing and Europe CMO Javier Meza.

Speaking yesterday at Advertising Week Europe (16 May), Meza discussed the way AI could be deployed to help businesses grow, urging his marketing peers to gain a solid understanding of how the technology works.

“One of the things we keep repeating in Coca-Cola is it’s about AI and HI. It’s artificial intelligence and human intelligence and ingenuity. I really believe our opportunity as humans is to continue to work on the creative side, on the values side, and use AI to scale ideas,” he explained.

“If I could give you one recommendation it is to go back to school and study digital, analytics and artificial intelligence.”

Having put himself through a one-year programme at the Kellogg School of Management studying digital and analytics, Meza underlined the importance of learning more about emerging tech given the “Gen AI revolution” is just beginning.

One of the things we keep repeating in Coca-Cola is it’s about AI and HI. It’s artificial intelligence and human intelligence and ingenuity.

Javier Meza, Coca-Cola

Citing an example of how Coke is using Gen AI to create point of sale material, he claimed the real revolution will come when brands use the tech to redesign systems. He likened the growth of artificial intelligence in 2024 to the dawn of the internet in the 1990s.

“This is for me like the 90s when the internet was just arriving. What is this internet? What is it going to be? How are we going to use that? Then today, internet is like oxygen,” Meza noted.

Currently Coca-Cola is using AI to better understand consumers and market dynamics by gathering and processing insights. Artificial intelligence is also used for consumer experiences, such as a Gen AI created Christmas card that formed part of Coke’s 2023 festive campaign.

From a product perspective, the business used AI to imagine what Coca-Cola would taste like in the year 3000. The Coke European CMO also recalled a brand video recently presented by one of his team created using Gen AI. Meza is himself benefitting from the productivity gains.

Coca-Cola’s marketing SVP on staying ‘fresh’ after 25 years with the business

“I don’t need any more to read 20 pages of reports. I usually use Gen AI to do the one-page summary. Or to send information to colleagues, I use Gen AI a lot,” he explained.

However, with new technology comes new rules. Conscious of the need to proceed carefully, Coca-Cola claims to have more governance around AI than other parts of the business. Any project using AI goes to a council run by CFO John Murphy. Decisions are made about how to move forward with an AI project – or not – depending on the case.

When it comes to trying new things, Meza said Coke has an appetite for risk. He used the example of the festive season and the team creating 10 to 12 brand experiences, some of which the company accepted might not work.

“As long as we anchor on the brand essence and the brand message the risk is relatively low,” he stated. “There is some risk of you investing money that doesn’t pay out, but that’s the price you pay to learn and then to be able to replicate at scale.”

No playbook for change

While AI plays a part in Coke’s transformation agenda, the company has a big focus on capturing first-party data. One use is to segment consumers, with the business having moved from a “static, traditional” segmentation model to a “real time dynamic” behavioural segmentation model.

“We are doing better audience planning so we can make our dollars work better by targeting who we really want to target and with data we can track and measure better the return on investment,” Meza added. “That’s the agenda and we’re doing that especially with the younger generations [Gen Z], but not only the younger generation.”

Coca-Cola introduced a new marketing model in late 2021, the ambition being to help the business become “truly customer centric”. The transformation is ongoing says Meza, who acknowledged there is no “playbook” for change on this scale.

“We knew why we needed to change and we started trying new models and testing them, and refining. At the end of the day, it’s about being more effective in marketing. That means driving business growth by expanding your user base,” he stated.

You need to accept that transformation is more a mindset than a goal.

Javier Meza, Coca-Cola

The Coke European CMO explained that central to the success of this new model is a focus on “connected experiences”, starting with product and packaging. This then branches out to live experiences, partnerships and sponsorships – such as of the Olympics and UEFA Euros – as well as retail, digital and activations on the shopfloor.

The transformation project has also involved a total overhaul of Coke’s agency structure. Believing that working with “fragmented partners” would not address the scale of transformation needed, the brand went from 6,000 agencies globally to a partnership with WPP.

“We really wanted to have one partner to help us on this journey,” said Meza. “The second thing is the ability to scale things faster through the agency. Many times when the local market has a need the agency can identify what we need in different markets and help us meet that faster.”

Within the WPP partnership Coca-Cola has developed nine worldwide Studio X teams, spanning more than 5,000 people, tasked with bringing the new experience-focused model to life through data, social, creativity, design and media.

Coca-Cola CEO: Renovation of existing products can be as impactful as innovation

The Studio X teams will help activate the brand’s Euros sponsorship, for example, blending live experiences on site in Germany with scalable digital content and retail activations designed to achieve “local intimacy”.

Aside from its agency relationships, Coke has restructured its teams to better fit the new marketing model. Teams have “evolved” over the past three years, a process Meza acknowledged can be painful.

“I can relate when team members say: ‘We just organised and we’re moving again’. That’s why this mindset of ‘transformation is a way of working not a destination’ is so important,” he said.

“You need to remain open to change. You need to help your team come together and be empathetic that it’s not easy, but you need to do what you need to do.”

‘Forget and learn again’

Marketing transformation is not a ‘one and done’ situation according to Meza, who argued marketers pursuing structural change will be left frustrated if they think all their goals can be achieved within six months.

“You need to accept that transformation is more a mindset than a goal and because you want to transform you need to remain curious, humble and learning,” he stated.

“That’s very important, because that basically is redefining what excellence means. Sometimes in large organisations like Coca-Cola in the past it meant no failure. Today it’s: learn fast, learn smart, scale things.”

It is Coke’s global scale that has kept Meza at the company for the past 26 years. The European marketing boss, who assumed his latest role in February 2023, has never lived in the same country for more than three years during his more than two decades in the business.

“Working in different parts of the world forces you to forget and learn again. I remember some moments in Asia, [it was] completely different. You may think, it’s the same brand. Yeah true, but a completely different business, competitors, retail environment, regulations,” Meza recalled.

While he has seen the CMO role evolve over that time, the need to understand consumers is one thing Meza believes will not change. Describing the CMO as acting like the chief growth officer in any business, he recognised the continuing need to keep abreast of changing tactics.

“Digital technology empowers consumers. More competitors, lower barriers for competition, higher regulation,” he noted. “I would say the secret for me is keep humble, keep curious, learn. If you learn you grow and the things that work for the organisation work for you as a person as well.”