Campaign Asia-Pacific spoke with Thakar at Spikes Asia 2015
Cause marketing has been a prominent theme at Spikes for a number of years. But by attaching themselves to causes, brands risk being seen as opportunistic, as Coke has experienced. How do you decide whether or not to involve yourself in an issue or crisis that is happening in the world?
At Coca-Cola, you always look at playing a role in an authentic, genuine way. You don’t want to make a big drama about handing over a cheque to someone; you do what you’re good at. You stop advertising, and that’s a huge statement. Purifying water, for example—that’s what we do best, so we should just go and make it happen. When we keep our character intact, it works well; then people don’t see it as an opportunistic thing. There’s no rulebook. We do have some guidelines, but when the time comes, you just play your most genuine card and try and stay true to your behaviour.
Since you joined Coke in 2013, how has technology changed what you do? Has it made the company more spontaneous, for example?
It’s become an everyday thing. Every office has a listening centre listening to what people are saying about our brands, good and bad, 24 hours a day. We look at what’s trending and how we can respond [to discussions about Coca-Cola] and to anything happening in the world. It’s not just about listening but also publishing—you analyse and publish any type of content you can put on the spot. That’s very much a part of the role. Of course, we still do large-scale campaigns and through technology they have become much larger—bigger, but also more dynamic. We take what consumers are creating and re-feed that into our system, so it’s not only that we create stuff.
How do you approach the collection of consumer insights?
We spend a lot of time doing immersions. I like going and checking out rural China or Vietnam. Or in Myanmar, for example, you do sampling with a person who’s never tasted Coca-Cola and capture the emotions of that person. That’s an amazing opportunity. The other part is neuroscience labs, where we have people taste and see how they experience it.
I believe that social media is a big focus group. It’s a good way to identify trends and what people are talking about—but not why they are talking. If you want to see how a lion hunts you go to a jungle, not the zoo. If I want to see what a lion looks like, I can go to the zoo, but if I want real insights I have to walk in the streets with people and get them to taste the product—that’s reality.
When people say good things, you don’t just take it as it is. Someone might be asking them to say it; there might be some design mechanism working. But when people are unhappy, they go super-loud, and they are genuine at that time. If someone’s not happy with our packaging or communications, we immediately hear it, and that’s good because [the reaction] can’t be designed or manufactured. If someone says ‘I love Coke, it’s so nice’, I won’t take that as input. So we have to figure it out based on context. I think negativity is more genuine on social media than positivity. Of course, we always want to see positive stuff, but that’s my feeling.
Are advertising agencies still central to what you produce as a marketer?
Things have changed. We used to call creative agencies first and then go to the media agency, the event agency [and so forth], but now we are not doing that. Instead, we are calling [companies like] Twitter to the same table when we’re thinking of ideas and asking them if they can think about a tweetable billboard, for example. From our side, we can still say to Ogilvy, ‘you know our brief, if you want to bring in OgilvyOne, Ogilvy Action, etc. that’s fine’, but on the other hand I know a guy who’s an expert in creative technology, and that’s when we become the integrator. If an agency is proactive and wants to add more value they can go and do that—the agency is one way of putting together a team—but it’s necessary for us as the client to be the integrator.
Many brands still separate their creative and media briefs. Is this justifiable?
We only have one brief. But the brief is not the most important thing—the briefing is. We bring everyone together and say, ‘this is what we’re trying to figure out, this is what we think can be done’, and we sometimes find answers coming from very different kinds of people. Our last ‘Share a Coke’ TVC, for example, was developed by Isobar. So it’s more fluid but I won’t complain about it—I like it. If someone comes up with an idea and we fall in love with it, we think, ‘let’s make it happen’.