When I journeyed to Coca-Cola HQ in Atlanta, Georgia, to meet the people charged with growing the world’s most famous brand (see cover story), I expected three days of self-congratulating fanfare, celebrations and bunting. It was, after all, the eve of Coca-Cola’s 125th birthday. I also expected to have to negotiate my way through a slick media operation with heavy-handed PRs ensuring genuine journalist access was kept to a minimum.
The reality was very different. Executives from all levels within every department were keen to talk. There is a very clear sense of positivity and optimism at Coke, which is just as well as it aims to double its revenue to $200bn by 2020. That optimism is present in the latest gizmo to be developed by the company, the Freestyle machine (we’ve called it Coke’s answer to the iPad). It’s there in the bottle Coca-Cola is working on that will be 100% made from recycled plant material. And it is there for all to see in our mini-profile of Wendy Clark, senior vice-president for integrated marketing. She describes her focus on getting shareable content not just to Coca-Cola’s 26 million Facebook fans but to the 585 million other people on Facebook that Coke’s Facebook fans are connected to. Optimism indeed.
But twinned with that positivity, everywhere I looked, was a healthy humility a paranoia running throughout the command centre of the Coca-Cola Company. It comes from a determination never to forget the things that made Coke the icon it is. In every exchange I had with executives from every level and across multiple departments, I could feel a sense of caution and fear/ the fear that the company’s culture could revert back to an arrogance that, according to CEO and chairman Muhtar Kent, nearly brought Coca-Cola to its knees in recent times.
Senior vice-president for public affairs Clyde Tuggle for example, asserts that “Coke’s success was built on great PR moments”. But he also remembers a story (he visibly cringes when he tells it to me) of former Coke CEO Douglas Ivester looking to design a vending machine to operate in hot countries that would charge more as temperatures increased.
Nobody from Coca-Cola hid during my stay in Atlanta. No executive refused to answer a question. I’ve covered Coke for years and this wasn’t always the company’s way. Mistakes have been made and the scars are still visible. But Coca-Cola now feels aligned from the inside and though its growth targets are outlandishly ambitious, this is one company you would bet on succeeding.