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We failed to communicate, says Coke India
Surajeet Das Gupta | February 07, 2006
Coca-Cola India's president and CEO Atul Singh loves adda - the legendary Bengali way of involved intellectual discussion - firmly believes former captain Sourav Ganguly has enough talent left to play for at least another season, but is equally worried about master blaster Sachin Tendulkar's waning form.
The honorary Bengali - who was born and studied in Kolkata's up-market La Martiniere Boys School - is a passionate supporter of the Mohun Bagan football club, and fondly remembers the freewheeling 1960s, when he would rush to Eden Gardens, braving the crowd and the cops, with a small notebook to keep a record of the score watching a cricket match between India and Australia.
Today, he doesn't have time for these simple pleasures and is fully absorbed in trying to fix, above all, Coke India's complete communication failure over the past few years, writes Surajeet Das Gupta.
Since Singh simply cannot spare time for lunch, after three months into his job, we settle for tea at The Oberoi's Belvedere club. Singh orders, no prizes for guessing, a diet Coke, dismissing one of the newer, and he says, bizarre, allegations he's heard that excessive drinking of diet Cola leads to loss of memory.
"Don't worry, I've been drinking this for 25 years and have had no memory loss!" I go along with Singh. "People say," Singh continues, "that if you put a tooth in a bottle of Coke for 10 days and it will dissolve - put it in a bottle of orange juice, and the same will happen."
One of the first things Singh did after he took over once Sanjiv Gupta quit, some say in a huff, was to lunch with fifty Coke staffers across five days, from senior managers to secretaries, and to get to know their apprehensions - why wasn't the soft drinks market growing, would Coke ever make money, how was the attack from environmentalists to be handled and what should be done to stem the 33 per cent attrition rate in the company?
Singh says he's looking for answers, not providing them. He gives the example of the Greek football team in the Euro Cup - it had no stars, but played as a team, and upset all the big boys.
The Coke chief invited all staffers from across the country for a two-day session at Uppal's Orchid near the Delhi airport, and each was given a chance to vent their grievances, whether about the bland food in the canteen, the ground water in Kerala, or their salaries.
After this, 80 volunteers were asked (this excluded senior management) to form six committees to come up with solutions to the problems. An elderly secretary, Singh recalls, said his son could not go to Dubai for the match since he could not afford the air ticket, ironic given the money the company was spending on sponsoring top games and celebrity sportsmen.
The money was sanctioned and Singh has left it to the committees to formulate a policy on what should be the criterion to help kids of staffers.
Recently Pepsi India's chief said the Rs 5 strategy didn't work, I toss the same question to Singh. The strategy, he insists, was right, but the execution was wrong.
The Rs 5 bottle, he says, should have been used to woo new potential cola drinkers in the market, but since it was sold in big metros instead of in rural areas and small towns, the 300ml sales were cannibalised - at Rs 6 a bottle, they may still have broken even instead of being in the red. Singh's now trying to woo new drinkers with a 200 ml bottle, now at Rs 7.
More differences emerge - Singh, unlike Pepsi's Rajiv Bakshi, does not endorse the idea that real growth will come only by focusing on the top 10 million income-earning families in the country. Nor does he believe colas are losing out to non-colas.
Singh avoids the peanuts and wafers as we both go in for a refill of Coke, and admits the pesticide controversy was badly handled as the company stopped communicating with consumers (since they stopped the ads), with the media and even the NGOs.
In Kerala, he says, the state had a huge water shortage and parched earth, but people still saw the massive red Coke trucks passing by. This gave the perception that the MNC was taking all the water, and so it was targetted, rightly or wrongly.
Singh says the important thing is that they did not anticipate these perceptions, and did not go to help resolve the community's water shortage. Similarly, Coke did not address the health issues raised -"coffee has caffeine, but who says it's bad for your health?", Singh asks.
He says consumers must be educated, though that will be a slow process. "NGOs will not agree with what we say and we will not agree with what they say. So instead of arguing, let us sit together and see what needs to be done on issues such as water harvesting, afforestation and so on," says Singh, telling me Coke has set up bodies like the Health and Wellness group and an environment group that has well-known experts to give them advice.
My time's up, and adman Suhel Seth is asked to wait for five minutes while I ask my last question - the difference between India and China, where Singh served Coke for 10 years. Coke did a survey amongst teenagers across the world, which included India and China, Singh reveals.
The Chinese kids were unanimous that they wanted their country to do well, but were not sure about their individual career graph. Indian teenagers, on the other hand, Singh says, were clear about their goals but were not sure about their country!
As we part, Singh adds, "The Chinese work as a team, we don't. We are too proud to admit we were wrong and look ahead." This is what Singh plans to do.