Monday, January 29, 2007

Coca-Cola's moral purpose?

Consultant Nikos Mourkogiannis writes in his recent book that the key to corporate greatness is having a "moral purpose" and then, suggests that Coke needs a new one:

“The Purpose of Coke was, in my view, to provide freedom in a bottle.

And a powerful purpose it was. Talk all you want about Ronald Reagan bringing down the Berlin Wall, there are other factors. Blue jeans. Rock music. And Coke. Indeed, as the Wall was crumbling, Coke was shipping truckloads of Coke to Eastern Europe.

Strategies must be re-examined every few years. If a company is lucky, Purpose is forever - or, at least, for two or three decades. And that seemed to be the case with Coke in the 1980s and 1990s. Freedom was spreading around the world. And Coke was always there, a celebration of that freedom, a kind of pop champagne.

Cut to 2003, and America's invasion of Iraq. The President's advisors spoke of being welcomed with flowers; one can imagine Coke loading cases of soft drinks for Basra and Baghdad. But then everything went wrong. America's traditional allies sat on their hands. Civil war followed. The liberators were described as imperialists, invaders, colonialists.

That harsh assessment has persisted ever since. And around the world, hostility to America has been extended to products that symbolize the United States. What does Coke represent now? As a global brand, it's the pause that refreshes -- that is, the pause that refreshes oppressors. Freedom? For a taste of that, Muslims drink sodas produced and distributed by their religious brothers. And, in Europe, other companies have begun to believe that Coke's market share just might be vulnerable.

Can Coke find a new marketing strategy to address this changed perception? I think not. Such a strategy would be hostage to ongoing political and military development. Coke could not hope to find a message powerful and seductive enough to change negative perceptions.

Coke has had a long run with its global Purpose. Now it is time for a new one. And although, as a consultant, I like getting paid for advice like this, here is the answer, free of charge--water.

Consider: back when Coke became a global brand, one of its selling points was that it was safe to drink. In places where the local water might be risky to drink, Coke was a beverage you could trust-- it didn't make you sick.

Now, in many places, water is once again an issue. This time, it's not just purity, it's scarcity. What Coke needs to do abroad is what it's already doing in America--wean consumers off sugar-based drinks, sell them 'healthy' beverages.

Coke, in short, needs to make its Purpose a socially redeeming one: alleviating thirst around the world."

A moral purpose sounds great, but I'm not sure about the reasoning that underlies it. First, both of Coke's purposes sound more like market positioning to me. Was freedom ever the company's purpose? And trading two bucks for a bottle of Coke's Dasani water might allieviate your thirst, but isn't profit Coke's purpose? Second, I tend to agree with Objectivist philosopher Ayn Rand and economist Milton Friedman that making money -- within the proper bounds -- is a moral purpose in itself. So why exactly does a company need some other purpose?

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