Coca-Cola — like a lot of food and drinks brands increasingly identified by their sugar, salt and fat content — is sailing in turbulent waters. Its last sales results saw the soft drinks giant report a 14% decline in net income to $2.1 billion for July-September 2014.
While sales are being hit hard by broad cultural and societal challenges that Coke cannot entirely overcome — the continuing rise of the health and anti-sugar lobbies and a growing shift in consumer attitudes to healthy eating, to name just two — critics suggest that the brand’s marketing and various internal corporate shenanigans are also at fault.
In the words of one former marketer from the company: "It’s mucky at Coca-Cola. The politics there are all-consuming. It’s all very well having a political climate when a business is doing well, but when a business is faltering, everyone is out to protect their own interests, rather than drive the business forward."
For many staff, attempts to protect their own interests will have proven futile. Coke announced earlier this month that it was in the process of cutting up to 1,800 jobs at its Atlanta base and its various international operations to help it realise £3bn in cost-savings - cuts that will inevitably have an impact on marketing.
But, of course, Coke is far from dead in the water. Huib van Bockel, former head of marketing at Red Bull UK and Europe, is quick to stress that Coke is still a much-liked consumer brand, pointing out it is "by far the number one FMCG brand consistently ranking in the top of Interbrand’s Best Global Brands chart.
"The question for me however is: Many people like the brand, but how many still really love Coke?"
Coke’s US heartland, in particular, is feeling the crunch, not least because consumers are less likely than ever to sup on a 20-ounce vessel of sugar-rich Coke thanks to growing concerns over health and obesity.
Yet Coke itself keeps its distance from the health agenda, when, according to the former Coca-Cola marketer, it should be part of it.
"Coke is not seen to be doing much to educate consumers," van Bockel says. "And really it’s a challenge for Coke until they get their portion control right. It should be less about volume play and more about margin play. If Coke can turn the agenda from volume to margin play then they’re onto a winner."
Health concerns aside, for others, Coca-Cola’s problems are rooted in marketing characterized by a lack of cohesion and plagued by inertia.
Van Bockel, who has written a book called "The Social Brand" and now runs an agency under the same name, says: "When Nike says: ‘Just do it,’ they go out of their way to make that happen. They organize events, they provide digital tools and web platforms to get you going. When Coke says ‘Open happiness,’ most of the time that’s it. They just say it. When do they actually do something that really makes you happy?"
Change is clearly needed at Coke, and fortunately, 2015 brings with it a new global CMO in the form of Marcos de Quinto — a marketer whose work in markets such as Spain has been lauded both internally and externally. For many, he is a potential savior.
"Marcos is a brilliant maverick and a fearless agent of change," says Neil Simpson, founding partner at ad agency The Corner and a former senior marketer at Coke who worked with De Quinto in the 1990s.
The announcement of de Quinto as Joe Tripodi’s successor raised a few eyebrows when it was made by chairman and chief executive Muhtar Kent last October, not least because de Quinto was not the safe, obvious choice that many were anticipating.
For many observers, internal frontrunners included Wendy Clark, president of sparkling and strategic marketing for Coca-Cola North America, and Dan Sayre, president of North West Europe and Nordics.
But some reckon that Coke needs to steer clear from making predictable decisions — insisting that that is partly where its problems lie.
"There is too much bureaucracy in the marketing structure and too many tiers and an element of fear in trying to be fresh and original," says Simpson. "That bureaucracy and fear means that creativity is being stifled."
Whether or not the likes of Clark and Sayre should have succeeded Tripodi is a moot point — de Quinto started as global CMO onJan. 1, and when his predecessor steps down at the end of February, the reins will be fully in his grasp.
Coke’s marketing certainly needs an overhaul as far as Kent is concerned — in October, he told analysts that "there's no question that we need to improve our execution in many markets, especially our consumer marketing and commercial strategies."
But Kent has also put in place strict controls on budgeting which mean marketing departments have to justify spend campaign by campaign, rather than having spend allotted on an annual basis.
While Kent has a reputation for being a feisty "streetfighter" according to the former Coke marketer, so too does de Quinto.
"Marcos is a headstrong and fiery Spaniard, charismatic with strong convictions," he says. "And you could not use any of those adjectives to describe Joe Tripodi. If the chemistry is right between him and Muhtar, then it’s system turnaround."
Once ensconced, de Quinto is expected to make dramatic changes. Certainly he is renowned for his marketing innovation at a company not of late characterised by it, with initiatives that, most importantly, drive sales. For instance, in 2013, he was behind Coca-Cola Spain’s ‘Magic Pill’ campaign, which bolstered the brand’s reputation and sales among health-conscious consumers.
Simpson reckons de Quinto will have to innovate as well as overhaul Coke’s global and local marketing structure — "finding the right talent in the key markets to replicate the tone, drive and energy he’ll want".
Simpson also envisages a shakeup of Coke’s agency roster, from a global and local perspective to realise the "cohesion of the global brand and the framework dispatched from Atlanta and how that marries with the brand on a local basis".
He adds: "Sometimes the pendulum swings from global control to autonomy in local markets. When marketing works best is when there’s a happy medium between those two things, with a vision set by Atlanta."
While Van Bockel is a fan of Coke’s named can "Share a Coke" activation — "a great form of engagement that was very likely a great sales boost" — he questions how effectively its global campaign messages are deployed in local markets.
"In my opinion with the tough product climate Coke is currently in - and their poor innovation track record — the key goal for the new CMO would be to make people fall in love with Coke again," he says.
"In the ‘social era,’ de Quinto will have to inspire his global group of marketing people to consistently come up with things that actually ‘Open happiness’; to consistently give people things that they truly appreciate, to make deposits. That is the only way people will fall in love with a brand. As opposed to just hammering it home in advertising."
De Quinto himself is something of a social media junkie — with 25,000 Twitter followers and more than 5,400 tweets. According to his profile on the social network, he is also a self-confessed "pirate" who "sails without a flag".
For Simpson, if anyone’s capable of helming Coke out of the doldrums and back into the 21st century, it’s de Quinto.
"He’s got that pioneering spirit," he says. "He will make tough calls."
This article first appeared on marketingmagazine.co.uk.