Go with a smile!

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

I'd Like To Sell the World a Coke

I saw a poster that was supposed to be inspirational. Robert Goizueta was one of the legendary CEOs behind Coca Cola. During his tenure, he brought Coca Cola to great heights. To be sure, Coca Cola was always supposed to be one of the great blue chip companies. But it was one of those stodgy, “old economy” elephants who was supposed to be more of a staid big, established firm, rather than an all-conquering titan.

When I was on course today, I saw a screen showing that Robert Goizueta changed the strategy of the company. When he arrived, the main strategy was that Coke was supposed to grab as much market share as possible from Pepsi. Goizueta’s great insight was that, “hey, instead of grabbing market share from Pepsi, why don’t we try to expand the market?” Then Coca Cola set about doing that, and Coca Cola henceforth not only became a great American Company, it became one of the great forces exporting American culture to the world.

Commercially, it was a great success, but I also consider it a disaster. One of my great memories of America is how fat everybody is. That’s what’s going to happen when fast food is as common there as hawker food is here. I’m kinda glad that our diet never got taken over by fast food the way that it was in America, but you never know if it’s ever going to happen.

Coincidently, I had a brainwave. I saw this article in the Guardian just this weekend, and one line jumped out at me: Britain’s obesity problem dates back to the 80s, around the same time that Goizueta was “expanding market share” to people. Selling Coca Cola to people, not only as a drink you bought yourself as a treat, but as a substitute for drinking plain water, or coffee or tea.

And you had to consider that Coca Cola was sometimes sold to people in third world countries who couldn’t afford it. God knows how they managed to get their Coke.
And you hear stories in India where farmers are being forced off their land so that other people can plant the sugar cane that goes into coke. (I know that the recipe is a secret but there is no doubt that sugar is one of the main ingredients). Now sugar cane is a crop that drinks a lot of water, which is a scarce commodity in India. You have a lot of irrigation water going into all that sugar cane just so that people can have their coke.

I don’t mind admitting that I like Coke. But I think that Coke should have just minded their own business and sold their stuff to their traditional market base, instead of messing up the world at large.

So, I’m asking myself, why are business leaders praised so much when they screw up so many peoples’ lives? Why did we treat them like gods in the 80s and the 90s? At least in the context of Coke, I don’t think that what Goizueta did was the right thing, no matter how highly praised he was for it. There is a story about how Steve Jobs lured John Sculley away from Pepsi to become the head of Apple. He said, “Do you want to spend the rest of your life selling sugared water or do you want a chance to change the world?” That sums up what soda executives do: sell sugared water. And later on Sculley demonstrated the lack of a moral compass you need in order to become a soda executive (*cough* Lee Hsien Yang *cough*) : he fucked up Apple and sacked Steve Jobs.

I don’t mind admitting that this story also has a personal dimension. I bought some canned drinks over Chinese New Year because my place was hosting a lot of relatives. (OK guys I know I haven’t been inviting you to my house and I’ve been telling you that I don’t host people but the truth is that I host relatives but very few others so I wasn’t kidding.) Then there were news reports of medical research that showed that drinking 2 cans of soft drinks PER WEEK doubles your (admittedly low) chances of getting pancreatic cancer. At the same time, you wondered what it did for your chances of getting diabetes.

Well I’m not that ready to give up drinking soda yet. But I admit that around the onset of my 30s a few years ago, I developed the habit of lounging around ice cream parlours with a book (but of course) and getting my 2 scoops (I don’t mean sexually). Of course I could do that when I could just wait for the weekend to come, run 20 km (I was also training for the marathon at that time) and all that fat would disappear. But distance running is no longer an option for me, what with my bunions. I actually find myself in the awkward position of having to both ration what I eat and ration how much I exercise (by running, that is.) If there is any indication that I am growing old, that must be it!



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