Tech in check: Coca-Cola's digital and e-commerce lead Kenneth Phua

The Coca-Cola Company's digital and e-commerce lead, BIG Region (Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam, Myanmar and Cambodia), Kenneth Phua (pictured), is no stranger to digital innovation and e-commerce in FMCG companies. Having helmed roles in both the client and agency sides, Phua is experienced in adtech, martech, brand and channel management, as well as new business conceptualisation for disruptive go-to-market strategy and consumer marketing.

Prior to joining Coca-Cola, Phua worked at Teneo Blue Rubicon, Paktor and Burson Marsteller. This edition of Tech in check explores why Phua is excited about super apps or consumer tech start-ups in Southeast Asia and how he overcame his biggest tech booboo.

Check out some previous editions of Tech in check here:
Berjaya Sompo Insurance’s brand lead Mawarni Adam
TM’s chief digital officer Ahmad Azhar Yahya

A+M: What was your first digital role like?

Phua: My first foray into digital was when I was in an agency. It was a time when everyone was still figuring out how to crack digital. I was fortunate enough to have a full spectrum experience of working on digital across a variety of industries and functions, be it for crisis management, consumer marketing, search and social, among others.

The biggest thing that has changed though is the level of sophistication that the region has now reached. Just seven or eight years ago, a lot of thinking, tech, infrastructure and platforms were still very much driven by the western markets. But now, we are seeing an abundance of strong, tangible tech platforms that are either emerging from Asia or ideas that are quickly proliferating to the region.

A+M: What was your biggest tech booboo?

Phua: Very often, individuals working in digital get caught up in the idea that digital solutions can solve everything or provide a be-all and end-all solution. It may be true in some circumstances, but in many others, it is not.

My biggest tech booboo was under-estimating the depth of support that was needed in the offline environment to support any digital initiative that was aimed at driving real business results. Ultimately, it is important to look what the objectives we are gunning towards and is digital the answer or is it a combination of digital and offline solutions.

A+M: How did you overcome it and what did you learn from it?

Phua: We pivoted quickly! The number one lesson for me is that digital is an enabler that cuts across business functions, and any digital initiative has and should have a symbiotic relationship with commercial functions.
If we start looking at digital as a function by itself or only as digital marketing, that’s when you are artificially creating an imaginary box for what digital can achieve.

A good testament of how digital should be viewed is how business is conducted for a digital person in Coca-Cola. I spend a majority of my time understanding the business, our commercial needs, challenges, and then coming out with omni-channel solutions together with marketing, commercial and our partners.

A+M: What are some of the common challenges you face with digital today?

Phua: The biggest challenge with digital today as a whole is the general understanding of what digital is. Because of the way the industry has grown and is currently structured, digital has and continues to be in many organisations, a marketing function or discipline. This has led to a skewed general view of what digital is. Even today, a lot of folks I meet are only associating digital with digital marketing.

Another common challenge I believe that everybody in digital would have faced at some point or another is exemplified in this question - Can we do some digital?. My point of view is that we shouldn’t be using digital for the sake of. Instead, the number one question to ask first is “Can digital bring incremental value to what you are looking to achieve?”

A+M: Are there any digital trends which excite you or that you are wary of?

Phua: The rise of super apps or consumer tech start-ups in Southeast Asia. I’ve met with a lot of these guys, and the amount of data and the resolution of the data that they have at their fingertips is unimaginable.

I firmly believe that if we are able to work closely with these companies, and find a way to strike a mutually beneficial relationship, the eco-system that they’ve built will be one of the components to help unlock a whole new dimension of the way we use digital.

A+M: Any top tips for marketers and brands embracing digital?

Phua: At Coca-Cola we believe that digital is something embedded across the organisation, and an enabler that can really drive business results, and not a standalone function.
Specifically for marketing, we should be thinking of how we do marketing in the digital age and NOT how we do digital marketing.

Think outside the box and look outside the organisation – digital disruption has and will continue to massively change the landscape, there’s always going to be better solutions out there than the ones we think we have. And the key is to learn from solutions or collaborate with others who have better solutions.

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