Is Coke It???

Coca-Cola’s new boss tries to move beyond its core product

More governments see its sugar-laden products as a scourge.

FEW companies are as defined by a single product as Coca-Cola. The firm has sold the sweet dark soda since 1886. At its headquarters in Atlanta, archives house the advertisements that sowed Coke in the world’s consciousness: posters urging consumers to “Have a Coke and a Smile”; Norman Rockwell’s 1935 painting of a boy fishing, Coke bottle in hand; a Coca-Cola record with tunes sung by Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin and The Who; advertisements with a red-coated, bearded Santa Claus—it was Coca-Cola that popularised the image of Santa in the 20th century.

Today Coca-Cola has $42bn in revenue and is available “within an arm’s reach of desire”, as the firm puts it, in every country but Cuba and North Korea. Its distribution is so broad, its marketing so expert that the Gates Foundation has urged vaccine campaigns to mimic its strategy. The question for James Quincey, an insider who took over as CEO this month, is whether Coca-Cola can move beyond Coke.

The company is under pressure. A growing number of governments see its main product as not an icon but a scourge, and have introduced soda taxes. Coca-Cola must adapt as shoppers switch to buying more online. Meanwhile, investors want its 24% profit margin to expand. Jorge Paulo Lemann, the founder of 3G, a private-equity firm that is stalking the consumer-goods industry, has quipped that he could run Coca-Cola with 200 staff.

Efficiency measures are already being taken, including a plan, expanded last month, to save $3.8bn by 2019. Selling off Coke’s vast network of bottlers—together, Coca-Cola and its many bottlers amount to the world’s biggest consumer company—could mean revenue plunging by more than $7bn this year. The idea is that the firm will become more agile and profitable as a result.

But the most important and risky shift is Coca-Cola’s effort to diversify. “The company has outgrown its core brand,” Mr Quincey said in February. Until 1955 the company sold only Coca-Cola, either in soda fountains or in small bottles. Its soda strategy thereafter might be summarised as Coca-Cola squared: the company sold more, bigger containers of Coca-Cola and other fizzy products like it, such as Sprite and Fanta. The greater the volume of soda that bottlers sold, the more money they made. Managers within Coca-Cola were rewarded for boosting volumes, too. The result is impressive. Last year Coca-Cola accounted for about half of all soda drunk around the world, according to Euromonitor, a research firm.

However, in many countries the market for fizzy drinks looks increasingly flat. In America the consumption of soda per person peaked in the late 1990s, at nearly 53 gallons per person, and has since declined to about 75% of that level. Last year volumes of Diet Coke, once seen as a fix for more health-conscious consumers, dropped by 4.3%, according to Beverage Digest, as shoppers grew wary of artificial sweeteners. Volumes of bottled water in America exceeded those of carbonated soft drinks for the first time in 2016. Soda-makers must deal with restless governments. France, Norway and the American cities of Philadelphia and Berkeley are among those with taxes on sweet drinks. Britain will introduce its own tax next year.

Muhtar Kent, the CEO who preceded Mr Quincey, began to address these problems. The company is reducing sugar in some sodas, though not in original Coca-Cola. It has also invested in other types of drinks. For instance Coca-Cola recently bought AdeS, a soy drink, from Unilever, an Anglo-Dutch conglomerate. It is also developing products internally, such as Gold Peak iced tea, whose annual sales now exceed $1bn.

Mr Quincey wants to speed the growth of such new offerings, as well as to bolster the firm’s existing products. “The direction of travel is clear,” he says. “If we are truly doing our jobs, we will have a broader portfolio.” In his prior roles Mr Quincey expanded its range of products, for example through the acquisitions of Innocent, a British maker of “smoothie” fruit drinks, and Jugos del Valle, a Mexican juice company. Nevertheless, soda still accounts for 70% of Coca-Cola’s volume. That is down from nearly 90% in 2000 but still an extremely high share. PepsiCo, Coca-Cola’s chief rival, has long had a more diversified portfolio of drinks and snacks.

A business unit called Venturing & Emerging Brands, or VEB, is trying to find other promising new drinks. In a VEB conference room in Atlanta, shelves are stacked with bottles touting everything from fermented drinks and coconut water to hemp iced tea and an “aloe vera drink with pulp”. Most are not Coca-Cola brands, but the company is keeping a close eye on them. “There is a tremendous amount of innovation and entry into our market,” says Mr Quincey.

VEB acts as a sort of venture-capital firm and incubator. Sometimes it takes a stake in an external venture-capital firm, which enables Coca-Cola to make indirect investments in young brands. In other instances the unit backs a company directly and then helps it in areas such as sourcing and distribution. For example, in 2015 it invested in Suja Life, a maker of “cold-pressured” juice—and increasingly Suja’s “Master Cleanse” is, for better or worse, within an arm’s reach of desire. VEB is now due to expand to Asia.

There are risks. Marketing has been Coca-Cola’s strength and whether that magic will keep its old oomph when sprinkled across dozens of brands remains to be seen. Traditional soda is usually more profitable than alternatives, says Ali Dibadj of Sanford C. Bernstein, a research firm, largely because healthier brands’ ingredients cost more. Bottled water has seen greater growth than any other drink, but it has particularly slim margins. Coca-Cola insists that it can broaden its portfolio, profitably, by focusing on premium drinks: for instance the company’s “smartwater” brand is enriched with electrolytes.

As for the firm’s traditional products, Coca-Cola is seeking higher volumes in young markets and higher profits in old ones. To propel growth in India, for example, it has developed a new bottle to keep its soda fizzy despite long and bumpy journeys. And in developed markets, where volumes are stable at best, Coca-Cola is making bubbly drinks more profitable through a mixture of higher prices and smaller packages.

From investors’ point of view, the firm’s strategy is strongly reminiscent of the way in which Big Tobacco has coped with the stigmatisation of its unhealthy legacy product. To be sure, even Coca-Cola’s most sugary drinks are like leafy kale compared with cigarettes. Yet like tobacco firms investing in e-cigarettes and lifting the cost of packs to consumers, Coca-Cola is diversifying into healthier beverages and raising prices for its traditional drinks. The resemblance to tobacco, says Mr Dibadj, is what makes the firm such a compelling investment right now—though not one that the company’s new boss or its legions of accomplished marketers are likely to tout.