It was a Sunday of June 1999. I was strolling in a forest of Luxembourg with my children. When the phone rang, I saw a number from the office and fumbled. One my colleagues talked about a small crisis, and asked if I could get to the Coca-Cola office for a talk. I was over two hours away from Brussels. I assumed the “crisis” to be the petty worry of an overanxious manager, and considered myself lucky to have an escape.
On Monday morning, I checked in the office to find the world upside down. The “small crisis” was a quality incident — two girls had claimed to be sick after drinking a Coca-Cola — and it was already creating a buzz. In hours, the buzz became panic. More girls reported sick. It was minor nausea — but no one had a clue of what was happening. A spokesperson for the company said we had nothing to do with it. The government took a tough stance: It banned any Coca-Cola product from the shelves of Belgium, for an undetermined duration. I was the marketing manager for Coke and it felt like being pulled from the ground into a tornado.
The next weeks felt like any extreme crisis situation. The marketing team gathered into a “war room.” The morning newspapers were headlined “Coca-Cola poisons our children.” We ran into a maelstrom of PR communiqués, marketing ideas, product pull-out plans … 12 hours of work a day, 7 days a week, with no sense of where it went. I would have paid a year of salary to get out.
And them something happened. Something, rather, broke.
Anyone who has gone through a personal crisis probably knows the feeling: At some point, it becomes impossible to battle against the tide, to deny. You realize that you fundamentally need to accept your ordeal. And it changes everything. In the same way, we gave in: We realized that there was no way our products would get back on the shelves before months. We realized our bonuses, our plans, our beliefs about our work, were gone. We realized, also, that all of this was our fault. Coca-Cola was a machine, a massive organization that worked with its well-oiled “field visits,” where executives in suits would trail top brass in the aisles of prepped-up supermarkets, global reels of ads to select from, promotions to build. It was solid, rational, controlled. And the machine was broken.
So the people came in.
We took ties off. We ordered ice cream for 4pm breaks. We looked for new solutions. We short-circuited the decision matrixes to go right to those who could make the calls. We rang the TV stations to get them to air the next day the ads we had shot in the morning, against all their habits. We called to our colleagues on the other side of the world to get ideas, footage, help. On a bright Saturday morning I had Charlie Frenette, then the Chief Marketing Officer of the company, meet me at the editing studio to give his OK on a piece of ad. In the Coke organization, Charlie was four hierarchy layers above my head. Three months earlier, preparing a 200-slide presentation for his first visit to Belgium had kept me busy for two weeks. The editing studio owner put on a suit and a tie. Charlie came in shorts and a Hawaiian shirt. He listened to what we wanted to do and made some suggestions. We sorted out an issue, had a chat whilst the technician was working, and finalized the ad. Business was human again.
The challenge was to prepare for the time when Coke would be back, and make sure people would welcome it, after it had betrayed them. We needed to think different, so we brought in new people. Christophe Fauconnier from Censydiam was one of them. With a few others, he offered a different approach to marketing. We used cultural analysis, anthropology, psychology to understand how the Belgians related to Coke. Chris and I would become friends and partners — today, with a few others, we run Innate Motion.
For the first time in my life, I really understood what a brand was. I met people who would drive 200km to go and buy some Coke across the French border for their families. I heard them speak about Coke not as a drink but as something that made the time with the kids, the time with the friends, just a little better. Something to count on. People loved the brand because it was part of rituals and moments that truly made them happy. And it meant something for them.
We all went through the same experience. The people we worked for suddenly had a face, an existence. We shared stories. We giggled. We built programs that the youth would get a kick participating in. We went out to the streets, not just the shops. We broke the barriers between the hierarchy lines, between the marketers and the people who bought their brands, between colleagues, between our office persona and who we really were.
After three months of that regime, I would have paid a year of salary to be allowed to stay. I had learned more than in my three previous years. I had learned empathy, a sense of care for the people who make your business, and the creativity that ensues. I had realized that people do not buy a brand when you sell it to them well, but when you make sure it really brings value to them. I had rediscovered people I thought I knew.
And most of all, I had learned this: Marketing is a people thing. If you forget your business thrives “people to people,” sooner or later it will crumble.
This post first appeared on the 2degrees blog on January 21, 2014.
Read the full story of the Coca-Cola Belgium crisis — and how it changed Coke for good — in the book Creating Value People to People by Benoit Beaufils & Christophe Fauconnier.