Leadership lessons from Coca-Cola: stay close or lose touch

I recently had the pleasure of attending a dinner organised by The Marketing Society to hear Coca-Cola’s Chairman and CEO Muhtar Kent speak. Clearly a bit under the weather with what he described as a ‘holy cold’ picked up in Jerusalem, one thing that struck me was the way his energy and passion flared into life when we spoke about certain topics that are close to his heart. The importance of growth in life at all levels, from individuals to companies and countries, was one such topic. Another was Coke’s sustainability agenda which is focused on the three Ws of Women, Water and Wellbeing.

The one I want to focus on though was his emphasis on the importance of understanding what he called ‘the point of impact’ when consumers make the decision to buy a drink. 'Everything comes down to the moment when that pound or dollar changes hands – that’s how we all earn a living. You have to stay close, or you’ll lose touch.' Kent pointed out that every time he visits a market, he always insists on visiting retail outlets to keep connected to where the real business gets done.

This call for consumer closeness and connection is a mantra one often hears expressed by marketing leaders. Indeed, the risk is that people cease to really hear the message any more, having heard it stated so many times.

The harsh truth though is that, in reality, there are still far too many marketers in leading organisations that aren’t close enough to their customers. I say this with some authority, having worked for many years to help people and organisations across a wide variety of industry sectors build their marketing and commercial capabilities.

Lack of time

The problem comes down not to a lack of good intent – everyone knows they should be close to their customers. But the fact is that our jobs are extremely busy and complex. There are endless meetings to attend, task lists to complete, stakeholders and agencies to align and fires to fight. The challenge is that simply immersing yourself in the world of the customer and their experiences can sometimes seem a bit lacking in ‘productivity’. Unless it’s tied in to a particular task or project, meeting customers can lack a tangible point. It can also be difficult to organise, particularly in some sectors such as pharma or B2B.

The danger is that over time, this lack of regular contact leads to the build-up of an insular mentality. People can end up lacking the intuitive sense of what customers think and feel. They also miss the emotional connection and inspiration that comes from really identifying with the needs their customers have and the role their brands can play in serving them. And without this passion and knowledge, they then lack the ability to influence the agenda credibly and forcefully within their organisations to really focus them on driving growth by better creating customer value.

Routines for success

So what can be done to make sure we stay closer to customers? One key idea which emerged in some recent leadership development work with one of Brand Learning’s clients is establishing ‘routines for success’. Instead of thinking about specific tasks as the way of planning one’s time, it helps to lift out and think about the structure of the way one is working more generally. By planning in certain types of activity more systematically, managers are able to strike a more appropriate balance between the ‘urgent’ and the ‘important’ things they need to do. 

Muhtar Kent’s example of always visiting the market when he travels to a country is a good example of a routine for success. Unilever’s introduction of a passport to record the amount of time people spend with consumers is another – if you haven’t built up enough hours, you no longer have the license to contribute at key meetings. I have seen other leading companies institutionalise an expectation to regularly spend time working in retail stores or accompany consumers on shopping trips. By building customer contact into the heart of the way marketers spend their time in these ways, we have an opportunity to get beyond the talk and really get close and stay in touch with those on whom everyone’s livelihoods depend.

Originally posted on the Marketing Society blog.


For more information about how Brand Learning can help you lift your organisation’s customer-centred leadership capabilities, please get in touch or contact me directly @AndyBird_BL. You may also like these films, perspectives and resources on Customer-Centred Leadership.

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