Coca-Cola on innovation: ‘We’ve got to be willing to kill the zombies’

By Rachel Arthur contact

- Last updated on GMT

Pic:getty/phive2015
Pic:getty/phive2015

Related tags: Coca-cola, Innovation

Coca-Cola is driving innovation and experimentation across its business to bring new products to market and expand existing products into new markets. But that doesn’t mean experimentation for the sake of experimentation – products must connect with consumers, says CEO James Quincey.

Quincey also says that Coca-Cola has been ‘shy’ in the past about expanding successful products: instead, he says the company needs to move quickly to make the most of its opportunities.

Consumer-centric company

While traditionally known for its carbonated soft drinks, Coca-Cola continues to emphasise its commitment to being a ‘total beverage company’ - one which needs to be bigger than its core Coca-Cola brand. It is broadening its portfolio across five category clusters: the traditional sparkling portfolio; dairy, juice and plant-based drinks; energy drinks; water and sports drinks; and RTD tea and coffee.

Within cola it has been innovating with the relaunch of Coca-Cola Zero as Coca-Cola Zero Sugar (intended to taste more like the classic flagship brand) and a brand revamp and additional flavors for Diet Coke. Meanwhile, it continues to develop Coca-Cola Life (sweetened with a blend of stevia and sugar) around the world, as well as intending to pilot a new Coca-Cola sweetened solely with stevia.

Outside cola its portfolio has become much more diverse: including Dasani, ciel, smartwater, Honest Tea, Fuze Tea and Minute Maid. Recent acquisitions have been that of Latin American soy-based beverage AdeS and Topo Chico sparkling water in North America.

In Japan it has been experimenting with Coca-Cola with added fibre, a frozen beverage pouch,​ and even plans to launch an alcoholic drink​ as a ‘modest experiment’ in the market.

“Clearly, we’re pushing the idea of experimentation,” ​said Quincey during the company's Q1 earnings call. “Not experimentation for the sake of experimentation, but in the service of the consumer, in the service of wondering what will connect and engage with the consumer.

“And I think that's allowing us to go and think beyond our previous boundaries; whether it's the campaign on Diet Coke;​ whether it's the rapid expansion around the world of AdeS,​ which is the soy-based plant drink that we bought in Latin America and we've taken to Europe; whether it's the speed with which we've tried some of the reformulations on sugar reduction in Latin America, or even some of the beverage innovation in Japan.”

Moving quickly

Quincey says Coca-Cola has sometimes been slow to capitalize on its successes in the past. In contrast, he says Coca-Cola is now proving it can be more nimble with brands such as smartwater and Fuze Tea (Fuze Tea, which achieved its billion dollar brand status just three years after its launch in 2012, has this year expanded into Western, Central and Eastern Europe​).

“It's all about trying to connect with the consumer, and when we’ve got something, let's not be shy about moving it round the world quickly,"​ said Quincey. "Sometimes, we have had good successes, we've been shy about moving them around the world. We've got to lift them, we've got to shift them, we’ve got to scale quickly.”

Kill the zombies

Experimentation requires a certain level of ruthlessness, Quincey says.

“The last thought I'll leave you with on experimentation is we've got to be willing to kill the zombies,” ​he said.

There has to be a point where innovators accept when a good idea hasn’t worked out. “That’s also a key part of experimentation - redirecting the resources to the next idea or doubling down on something that works,” ​he said.

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