5 Lessons From the Demise of Coke’s CMO


May 23, 2017

by Carla Johnson

Coke recently cut the role of CMO from its C-suite roster.

Does that mean that marketing’s in trouble at one of the world’s most iconic brands? Yes, if those marketers are the type who want to keep a traditional role. If you think that delivering great work for a status quo strategy, you should be worried about keeping your job. Very, very worried.

Coke’s decision is a warning to CMOs and marketers who default to focusing on products rather than creating an experience that differentiates the brand. Here’s what every marketer needs to learn about former Coca-Cola CMO Marcos de Quinto’s situation…

1. Advertising isn’t a strategy.

I can’t believe that anyone in this day and age doesn’t understand this. Much less the CMO of a Fortune 100 consumer brand. In a statement to the press, what did Coke focus on for de Quinto’s contribution to the company? Advertising.

“[de Quinto] will leave behind a strong legacy as he has been responsible for a resurgence in the quality of Coca-Cola advertising.”

Leaving behind a legacy of something that interrupts your customers isn’t something to be proud of.

When Airbnb CMO Jonathan Mildenhall was the Vice-President, Global Advertising Strategy and Creative Excellence at Coca-Cola, he had earned the brand’s reputation for transformational, creatively driven marketing on a global scale.

He launched the Coke 2020 program which became iconic for what marketing was capable of contributing – collaborative storytelling and content create that elevated Coca-Cola in unexpected, delightful ways.

2. Marketing’s first job isn’t marketing.

Marketing is about growth, innovation and driving the business, not pushing the brand or products, which de Quinto didn’t understand. As a result, someone else is now in charge of growth for the company and they are tapping people outside of marketing to drive innovation. It’s a huge lost opportunity for the CMO role and all marketers on the Coke team.

Marketers need to be business people first, and marketers second. They need to understand what makes a business successful, how it operates, how it funds itself, and what and who make it tick.

Do you want to know how to think like a business person first? Read business books. Dive into things like Shoe Dog, Originals, Grit and Thinking, Fast and Slow. I asked a marketing colleague what books he reads other than marketing books. He stared at me blankly and said, “Nothing.”

Being that myopic with what you put into your mind isn’t good for you on any level.

3. Your product isn’t your value.

Mr. de Quinto ended the broader, more resonant message of “Open Happiness” and retracted to a “Taste the Feeling” product-centered approach. Instead of focusing on building emotional connections with his audience, he dialed Coke’s marketing back a decade and focused on the brand and what it sold.

As Simon Sinek says, “People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it. And what you do simply proves what you believe.”

What de Quinto did was prove that he believes Coke and what it sells are most important. Not creating, experiencing and sharing happiness. The resulting performance is feedback from consumers that they don’t care about the brand, they care about the experience and the emotion it sparks. Which leads me to…

4. The experience rules.

In 1971 Coke gathered a group of people on a hill and had them sing “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing (In Perfect Harmony).” Even then Coca-Cola understood that it was about the experience. The ad shared a positive message of hope and love, and featured a collection of multicultural teenagers. The song was re-recorded, dropping the beverage references, and became a hit record in the United States and the UK.

The song itself was inspired by an experience that Bill Backer, creative director on the Coca-Cola account for McCann Erickson, had while working on radio spots for the brand. Sharing peace and love became the message and sharing a Coke was the backdrop.

5. Change matters.

The goodness on which in-coming CEO James Quincy says that the company will focus is change. But the good kind that puts customers in the center of the equation. At a conference last year, de Quinto said that he was “re-Coca-Colizing Coca-Cola,” and told agencies to put coke products front-and-center in ads. He wanted to go back to the roots of the company. Holding on with a white-knuckled grip to the past doesn’t nothing to facilitate change – and hence growth and innovation – within a company.
Marketers have to realize that growth and comfort can’t co-exist. If you’re not able to come to work each day and be ready to do something different – to experiment and do it better – then you’re in the wrong profession.

Photo credit: Flickr user Linda

About Carla

Carla Johnson Innovation Creativity Speaker Author

Carla Johnson helps leaders who are often paralyzed by traditional thinking. They suffer from slow growth, an eroding competitive advantage, low employee engagement, and depleted investor confidence. Their teams lack purpose and progress and constantly battle a resistance to change and new ideas.

As the world’s leading innovation architect, Carla’s spent 20 years helping leaders shatter limits and discover undiscovered possibilities. Through years of research, she’s developed a simple, scalable 5-step process that teaches people how to consistently produce inspired ideas that lead to uncommon outcomes.