Adrian Peter Tse
Jan 22, 2015

Tending Coca-Cola's incubator of inspiration

THE FACE BEHIND THE BRAND: Coca-Cola’s Asia marketing director Peter Schelstraete believes that linking the realities of the market to ‘big creativity’ is the way of the future.

Schelstraete advocates a ‘cloud of creativity’ to allow marketing to grow from the ground up rather than being imposed from the top down
Schelstraete advocates a ‘cloud of creativity’ to allow marketing to grow from the ground up rather than being imposed from the top down

Even when he started his career with The Coca-Cola Company in Belgium 17 years ago, Peter Schelstraete had his eyes on the developing markets of the world. After just four years with the company he began pushing to go to Asia, Africa or Latin America, seeing the potential there for both Coca-Cola and his own career.

“In my career, I’ve always looked for the steepest learning curves,” Schelstraete says, raising his hand just above his head. 

His first opportunity to do that was in Casablanca, Morocco, where Schelstraete spent three-and-a-half years handling the brand’s regional marketing for Africa. The contrast, moving from a developed market like Belgium to a developing one, was stark. Schelstraete highlights the change in mindset required by recounting how his team in Ghana informed him they needed to pull money from the marketing budget to rebuild a bridge near the factory as the government wasn’t doing anything about it.

Following Africa, Schelstraete was called up to  the Coca-Cola headquarters in Atlanta to head of global marketing. In this role he launched the ‘Coke side of life’ in 2006—at that time Coke’s “first truly global campaign” in a decade. But Schelstraete felt an itch to go back in the field to “be close to operations where the action happens”, so he took an opportunity to go to Bangkok to oversee marketing in Southeast Asia. Three years later, Schelstraete’s insatiable hunger to learn returned, and he left marketing in a move that he thought would be “for good”. 

“I wanted to do something completely different,” Schelstraete says simply. His next stint would be in Coke’s franchise and commercial division, where the focus is more operational and sales-oriented. The franchise aspect deals with the relationship with bottlers and Schelstraete spent his time working on hands-on sales and distribution with bottlers in the region. The role allowed him to see the logistical backbone of the company and work with people on every rung, all the way down to the delivery and sales personnel on the front line.

Schelstraete’s craving to discover the “hardcore operational side” of the Coca-Cola business was part of his vision to see where there were opportunities for greater innovation.

“We do marketing to drive business not creativity,” he says, stressing the importance of linking marketing to what happens in operations. 

Since 2013, he has been putting that into practice after returning to his marketing roots as group marketing head of Asia-Pacific. Schelstraete believes that in Asia, “marketing starts with ‘A’ and stands for availability and affordability”. 

“As a marketer in Asia you don’t start thinking about the campaign first; you start with the ‘A’s and you build from the ground up and not top down.”

Marketing entrepreneurialism 

Asia’s entrepreneurial quality has always stood out but it’s become more pronounced as traditional marketing structures have “begun to crumble”. According to Schelstraete, the modern marketer is an entrepreneur who has one foot in operations and the reality of the market and another in innovation, a sense of social media and societal impact. “The marketing bureaucrat that starts with the brand vision and then briefs an agency who then comes back with a TVC and outdoor campaign, no longer holds,” he says, explaining that the role now calls for entrepreneurial people who “act, analyse and adapt”.

Schelstraete’s move to Asia-Pacific coincided with a major shake up of Coca-Cola’s internal approach to marketing. The company has implemented an initiative called ‘incubators’, which focuses on multidisciplined innovation projects ranging from product and packaging all the way through to social media. Regional marketing teams are told not to worry about group-level approval and instead “just go and do it and come back if they have something to show for themselves”. 

The ‘incubators’ concept contrasts with Coke’s traditional approach, which started with the “Coca-Cola mantra and a single idea” and would see that idea activated across all regions in the same way. “It’s impossible in Asia, which has Singapore and Myanmar, Australia and Japan—it’s so different and you need to embrace the diversity of Asia and each country needs to learn from each other.”

A notable product innovation to come from the new system was a Schweppes product called +C. Following successfully testing in Hong Kong, the brand launched in China—and 25 million cases sold within a year. Similarly, the concept for ‘Share a Coke’ came from Coca-Cola’s Australian team and spread across 70 countries around the world. 

“At our level, there are only so many ideas,” Schelstraete says. “But if you unleash your people, you get a lot of ideas, from which point you adapt and localise and the best ideas surface.”

The ‘incubators’ approach allows the company to balance localisation with its global brand concept, something Schelstraete says is essential due to the way Coca-Cola’s operates.

“At the end of the day, we’re a franchise system and it’s the bottlers that run separate companies. They’re the actual ones investing in trucks, production lines and people on the ground. So the reason we’re a truly global and local company at the same time is because we have so many bottlers around the world being present and if you don’t tap into the work they do and can’t explain what we do to the sales guy on the street then there’s an issue.” 

‘Big creativity’

“The cascading effect on social media is driven by creativity. People talk about big data but we ought to talk about big creativity as well,” Schelstraete says. In terms of this process, he believes “a cloud of creative” consisting of agencies, artists, designers, YouTubers and other creative types keeps the Coca-Cola brand fresh and pushing new boundaries. 

To implement this, the company has 30 social-media centres around the world, 11 of which are in Asia. These centres are collaborations with agencies and staffed with young, early-career analysts and fresh creative specialists who monitor and respond live, picking up feeds, events and stories relevant to the Coca-Cola universe. They are encouraged to make posts and generate content without seeking approval. Schelstraete cites the example of a young creative in Indonesia who spotted an opportunity to tie a Coca-Cola post in with a national election by using a simple creative that captured the mood and spread quickly on social media.

“It’s better to mine diamonds in the rough than to polish diamonds,” said Schelstraete. “It goes back to the million-dollar TVC production versus the next idea that could be ‘Share a coke’.” He admits it is hard to hit the numbers needed for massive scale without TVCs, but the brand continues to shift a growing portion of its US$1 billion media budget into social media, where “potential scale can be combined with precision”.

“We follow the 70/20/10 rule. You put 70 per cent of your budget into what you know works. And social media is quickly entering the 70 per cent.”

Schelstraete says the future of Coca-Cola depends on a broader perspective of how drinks interact with people. Known as the “brand humaniser” process, this relies on deep analysis and research, extending to the nature of happiness and how it is experienced across different cultures. 

“We even send staff into low-income households around the world to get a better understanding of the needs of people at all levels,” Schelstraete says. “It can be confronting but you need to get your hands and feet dirty.”


  • 2013 Group marketing director, Asia-Pacific, Coca-Cola
  • 2011 Franchise and commercial director, Philippines, Coca-Cola
  • 2007 Marketing director, Southeast & West Asia, Coca-Cola
  • 2004 Global brand director, Coca-Cola
  • 2001 Division core brand manager, North & West Africa, Coca-Cola
  • 1997 Group brand manager, Belgium, Coca-Cola


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