Even a leading, iconic, international brand has to understand that the consumer can make a different choice each and every day. Relevance is critical, and for Coca-Cola, the need for relevance drives constant innovation. The beverage brand founded in 1886 has to stay inventive to remain atop the soft-drink market. And in Canada, the person in charge of the brand’s success is Christian Polge. After working across Western Europe, the native Frenchman came to Toronto in 2015 to leverage knowledge from his 27 years with the company. With Polge at the helm, Coca-Cola had its best year in Canada since 2012. He recently sat down with Advantage to discuss how a high-performing team, constant innovation, and a deep understanding of the Canadian market will keep Coca-Cola at the top into 2016 and beyond.
You moved from London to Toronto in 2015 to lead Coca-Cola’s Canadian business unit. What brought you here?
I had been in my previous role a number of years, and when the opportunity came up, I was excited and thought it was a good match for me and the company to come here and try and take the business to the next level. Over and above the experience I have in various markets and different parts of the business, the fact that I also speak both English and French is a great fit for Canada.
What have you learned since arriving?
I knew before arriving that Canada is a large country, so I set out to do a lot of traveling in my first six months here. I went from Québec to Vancouver and stopped in many places in between, and I think that adventure helped ease the transition. One of the first things I noticed was how diverse Canada is. It’s one country, but many markets. I understand more that we have to serve those different markets, and that will be at the heart of our success in the future.
“In the fast-moving world of consumer goods, you have to remind yourself that every day, the consumer can decide to buy something else. Every day, they have to think about your brand and find the right product that they’re ready to buy.”
What’s most important to keeping Coca-Cola at the top of the Canadian market?
In the fast-moving world of consumer goods, you have to remind yourself that every day, the consumer can decide to buy something else. Every day, they have to think about your brand and find the right product that they’re ready to buy. So you have to understand and deliver what they’re looking for.
If that’s what every brand is trying to do, how do you win?
We have to focus intensely on the consumer, and we have to bring more value to our customers. We can do this by recruiting and developing the best high-performing teams, investing in our brands, and being at our best in each outlet to turn shoppers into buyers.
What innovations are you building on today?
Share a Coke was implemented in Canada and around the world, and that was huge for us. I don’t think everyone realizes how innovative it was. It touches on long-term trends we’ve seen of simplicity and personalization. We were able to put a single name—thousands of names—on bottles and that resonated well with people from all cultures and backgrounds and ages.
What was the real innovation there? Was it how personal it was and how widely shared this campaign was on social media?
That was part of it, but the real innovation was in digital printing. We understood a newly available technology before other companies, and we used that to create a new solution that allowed us to be disruptive in the market by printing all these different bottles. We couldn’t have done that without this new technology. Yes, consumers have played with it in hundreds of different ways on social outlets, but the printing technology was the innovation behind this very successful campaign.
And your freestyle machines are popular.
Coca-Cola Freestyle is another great example of innovation and leveraging existing technology for new uses—in this case from the healthcare industry. These machines, which are usually placed in restaurants and other food-service locations, give consumers the choice of 120 products instead of 6 or 8, all with the same consistent taste and high-quality each time. We did this based on what we know about the consumer; they’re looking for more choices, including low-cal options.
How can you build on these hits?
We’ll roll out another version of Share a Coke later this year, and we’re also changing our Coca-Cola brand strategy to move from a multi-brand approach to a unified, One Brand approach. We’re bringing all of our Coca-Cola trademark products under one common Coca-Cola brand family, and we’ll market behind that family of products to offer consumers different choices. That will become more important in the future, so you’ll see more innovations around products and packaging.
Why take this new direction?
The One Brand approach will enable us to have more and better marketing behind the Coca-Cola brand. Under this new approach, our new global campaign, “Taste the Feeling,” will have a simple message to consumers around all of the varieties of Coca-Cola (including Diet Coke and Coke Zero): Coca-Cola has a unique, great taste and drinking a Coca-Cola, any Coca-Cola, makes the moment more special.
So you’re not originally from Canada—do you see that as a strength or a weakness?
I’m doing everything in my power to make it a strength. It’s sometimes easier when you come from the outside to look at the market with a fresh perceptive, but you need to remain humble and realize you don’t have the history to understand everything. I’m getting a lot of input from my team and adding in thoughts and ideas I bring from having worked in other markets around the world.
How must you understand Canada and society in general to stay innovative?
You have to make it simple. You can do a ton of research, but I really believe in being curious, walking the streets, and talking to people. I talked earlier about the different markets in Toronto. The people who buy in bulk versus the condo-dwellers who buy small packages because they have smaller spaces. Those are the things you learn by being curious and getting outside of your office building.
How do you encourage your teams to stay curious?
It starts at selecting the right people, and then you have to shape the culture at the top. It’s a journey, but the leaders have to live it every day.
Coca-Cola is concerned with sustainability, but how does this tie into innovation?
Purpose connects us to people. We’ve been in Canada since 1897, and we want to be here in 100 more years. We believe that sustainability is an integral part of our business and that it is good for business. PlantBottle, a plastic bottle made with 30 percent plant-based material, is a good example of how we bridge sustainability and innovation. Light-weighting our packaging is another way to reduce carbon emissions as well as costs.
What’s next for your teams?
We want to continue building strong and trusted brands. Not just Coke, but smartwater, and vitaminwater, and Nestea. We also have to bring more value to the customer.
Is your success tied to the economy?
Companies can grow no matter what. There are always growth companies even in tough times, and my goal is to make sure we’re one of them. We have the right brand, the right customer relationships, and the right team to make that happen in the future, and that makes my adventure in Canada very exciting.