The challenges in keeping Coca-Cola's centenarian brand fresh

With its iconic red and white packaging, an instantly recognisable logo, and a signature sweet flavour, Coca-Cola has captured people’s hearts around the globe. Clory Wong, marketing director for Hong Kong and Macau at Coca-Cola, talks about how this 133-year old classic beverage brand stays on top of the industry. Sharon Kwok reports.

A diversified beverage portfolio

In Interbrand’s “Best Global Brands 2018 Index”, The Coca-Cola Company was ranked fifth with a brand value totalling US$66,341 million, making it the top beverage company worldwide. It has grown far beyond the confines of its core brand. But even as brand Coca-Cola remains the soul of the company, it has broadened its beverage portfolio in a commitment to become what it calls a “total beverage company”.

Clory Wong has been with The Coca- Cola Company for more than 18 years and has observed the changing beverage market landscape.

In Hong Kong, the company maintains a comprehensive and diversified beverage portfolio in various categories such as sports drinks, dairy-based drinks, ready-to-drink coffees, and teas. Featuring 20 brands, these include its signature sparkling soft-drink brands – Coca-Cola, Sprite, Fanta, Schweppes, Glacéau Vitaminwater, Bonaqua water, and Minute Maid.

“Our company has a core strategy called ‘beverage for life’ where we aim to offer different beverages for customers throughout their lifetime,” Wong explains.

“But we are definitely selective when bringing in new innovation to the portfolio. We will consider whether it is relevant to our consumers and retail partners, and unique to the brand.

“We also adopted a consumer-centric strategy that we have to understand consumers’ needs before we launch any products such as their desire to purchase, how open are they towards the new product, and how we can offer products and packages that better meet their beverage needs.”

Local innovation is key to the brand. The tea culture is ubiquitous in Hong Kong, so the company launched a series of high quality ready-to-drink Chinese teas under the brand, Authentic Tea House.

Wong also tells Marketing the 2019 launch of “Mini Can” for the first time in Hong Kong is another example of responding to long-term consumer demand for a micro version of the brand’s soft drink. While Coca-Cola’s classic can size contains the standard 330ml in volume, a mini can stores only 200ml, appealing to customers who prefer a smaller serving.

“There were not so many choices for retailers and customers in the past. I think we have entered into the age of more. For example, we used to watch TV screens only, but now we are looking at our smartphones and tablets. Consumers demand more choice of products nowadays.”

Fast-forward to late June 2019 when the company introduced its first energy drink – “Coca-Cola Energy” – to Hong Kong. Following an initial European debut in April, the goal was to tap into the energy drink market, with the product positioned as an energy drink that still had that signature Coca-Cola flavour.

Boasting natural caffeine-based guarana extract, vitamin B, and a taurine-free recipe, its launch targeted a group of young consumers who live hectic lives and require that little push to go the extra mile.

“The energy drink market is not huge in Hong Kong, but we see a rising trend in it. We reckon there is still room to provide more choices to consumers,” Wong says.

Creating occasions

Intriguingly, the company doesn’t take a onesize- fits-all approach. Instead, it produces individual marketing plans for each product, from top to bottom. Full bloom integrated marketing communications, OOH campaigns, digital marketing, in-market executions; each catered to different segments and business goals accordingly.

Wong points out the common ground of launching all its new products and marketing campaigns is ensuring they answer the needs of specific consumers with a unique offering different from other players.

“Customers need different beverages for various occasions,” he says.

“Even though people are becoming more health-conscious, there are occasions that we want something sweet. For example, people may want something tasty and sparkling with an energy kick after an exhausting meeting. I believe sugary beverages still have a significant role. And we try to create more occasions associated with having our beverages through marketing.”

One of the key concepts is to build a consumer’s habit of drinking Coca-Cola beverages while eating. And there is no shortage of campaigns which feature food and eating scenarios. Riding on Hong Kong’s local hotpot culture, in 2012 the company produced one of its most popular TVCs, featuring musical artist Charlene Choi having hotpot with a Coca-Cola.

“The association between eating and Coke is well-established. Looking forward, we will focus more on a strategy called segmented execution that leverages consumer insights to deliver the right message during different stages of the consumer journey,” he says.

“And we have to work harder on the allure of the Coca-Cola experience to draw people to share their moments on social media. Friend recommendations are effective.”

For another key occasion, “break time”, the company recently created several mixology recipes for the Schweppes series. Targeted to be consumed during leisure time and socialising events, the campaign rolled out a series of four videos featuring singer Jun Kung, in which he demonstrates making cocktail recipes with sweet, sour, bitter and spicy tastes.

Wong says of the modern approach: “The Coca-Cola Company has a widely diversified target demographic. Youngsters aged from 10 to 20 are our potential customers. We start recruiting them to consume soft drinks by riding on the most relevant occasion – gaming. It is also an occasion which has a strong association with having beverages as well.”

Indeed, to create a relevant connection with youngsters, Coca-Cola is following the lead of many major brands by throwing its hat into the esports arena. The company has joined forces with Emperor Esports Stars to launch “Coca- Cola: The Emperor Cup 2019”.

Getting a connection

“The way of connecting with consumers has changed tremendously. Consumers are well connected with different media that they are able to access many reviews and information on products. It will affect their decision-making process for purchase, therefore the power of the brand is important,” Wong says.

He further explains the advantages of leveraging strong branding, which includes being able to build consumers’ habits. Brand equity leads to faster decision-making on purchases and also reduces the difficulty in recruiting loyal customers.

In March, Coca-Cola experimented with an alternative product design, introducing a series of tall, thin cans. To resonate with the HK public, the cans’ bodies were decorated with elements of local heritage, including Oi!, Blue House, Sam Tung Uk, Shing Mun Reservoir Steel Bridge, Lui Seng Chun, Stanley Post Office, Yau Ma Tei Theatre, and Tsui Sing Lau Pagoda.

“It is crucial to adopt localisation tactics for global brands like Coca-Cola, riding on local culture to create customer engagement and amplify the brand image,” Wong explains.

Apart from the continuous efforts on introducing new innovations, the company has also launched creative marketing campaigns to retain the 133-year-old brand’s relevance to its consumers. Wong tells Marketing, over the years one of his favourite campaigns was the 2011 “Coca-Cola Chok Chok Chok”.

“The promotion method of the campaign was avant-garde at that time. It was the first marketing initiative that integrated a mobile app and TV ad. The brand created a mobile app where the audience could catch tumbling bottle caps from the TVC to win instant prizes. The app was downloaded over 380,000 times in one month.” In summer last year, the company launched a similar campaign called the “Coca- Cola City-wide Tetris Viva”. The brand revived the godfather of video games, Tetris, as a mobile game before bringing live audience gameplay to the OOH billboard in Causeway Bay as a realtime interactive experience. Followed by social videos with celebrities and KOLs, it aimed to rejuvenate the brand and connect with digital and social-savvy youngsters.

Sustainable drinks

Wong points out a major challenge ahead is addressing concerns about consumer health and environmental protection.

To drive sustainable growth for its brands, Coca-Cola has encouraged consumers to control added sugar consumption. Wong is a member of the Committee on Reduction of Salt and Sugar in Food, which has led to the company’s creation of more low sugar recipes.

“We realise that people have concerns about their sugar intake. The company is taking added sugar out of its drinks across the portfolio by reformulating existing beverages while preserving the taste consumers love, and by including more low and no-sugar options and drinks in emerging categories and brands,” he says.

“Since the launch of Coke Zero, the unsweetened beverage portfolio has soared rapidly. Looking at the market development in the long term, Hong Kong consumers are (becoming more) health-conscious. We see there is a rapid growth of unsweetened tea particularly.”

Wong adds that Coca-Cola Hong Kong reduced sugar in 10 of its products last year, and that number increased to 15 this year.

Another sustainability initiative – “World Without Waste” – was introduced by the company to tackle the issue of packaging waste. Bonaqua rolled out its “Water Station” programme, with plans to instal 300 water stations in Hong Kong during 2019, and has promoted a “Bring Your Own Bottle” lifestyle.

While recycling is a commonplace tactic nowadays, upcycling could be seen as an even better option when it comes to bringing new life to waste.

Coca-Cola has gone a step further with its edgy style – collaborating with Hong Kong contemporary art gallery Carré d’artistes and Le French May to present an eco-friendly exhibition by French artist Sophie Costa. The installation showcased artworks made of everyday upcycled materials, in particular, Coke cans.

The Carré d’artistes gallery itself has also transformed into a highly Instagram-able space with a Coke Can wall. It was created with more than 650 pieces of Coca-Cola tall cans and mini cans.

It may be more than a century old, but the company makes a good pitch that things are always cooler with Coca-Cola.

This article was produced for the July issue of Marketing Magazine. For more features and other magazine-exclusive content from this and upcoming issues, you can subscribe to receive your free monthly print copy here or you can read our digital version in its entirety here.