KANSAS CITY — It has been almost three decades since news about The Coca-Cola Co. appeared on the pages of Milling & Baking News with any frequency. Coke made a brief foray into the grain-based foods industry in 1982 with the acquisition of Ronca Foods, a pasta company based in Memphis, Tenn. After expressing a strong interest in expanding in the pasta market, Coca-Cola sold the business two years later, concluding it would not succeed in creating a national pasta brand.
Even if the company exited grain-based foods long ago, bakers and others in the industry would do well to monitor developments at Coca-Cola, still one of the more admired companies in the world. Segments of the baking industry and carbonated soft drink (CSD) makers share much in common, including challenges with gradually eroding demand within the center of the supermarket, fallout from the vilification of a key ingredient — high-fructose corn syrup — and a reliance on direct-store delivery distribution.
In a recent call with investment analysts, James R.B. Quincey, the company’s British-born chairman and chief executive officer, shared his thoughts about the outlook for the business in the face of uncertainty associated with the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
Like many executives, Mr. Quincey said he is preparing for a range of potential circumstances that may unfold in the United States and global economies in coming weeks and months, referring to an increasingly familiar “alphabet soup of scenarios.” While a rapid, V-shaped recovery would clearly be most desirable, he said it is not likely. Still, “we have to be ready in case it’s a V,” he said. More likely is a U-shaped recovery with a lengthier bottom and, most frightful, would be an L-shaped scenario with a long recession or depression. “Yes, the L is possible, too,” he cautioned. Each scenario would have different implications for the company’s approach to revenue growth management (RGM), key to every company’s strategies for the most effective approach to price, promotional activity and assortment.
“RGM is key as we prepare to strike the right balance of affordability and recruitment packs in addition to premium offerings,” he said.
Beyond thinking about how Coca-Cola’s world will be changed in the long term by the pandemic, Mr. Quincey identified actions the company is taking now in response to changes in consumer behavior that may resonate strongly with bakers. The investment required to sustain DSD systems is premised on the value salesmen deliver once they are in stores, with an on-the-ground ability to merchandise. The current environment when many consumers view their trip to the grocery store as the single most perilous activity of their week heightens the importance of merchandising to an entirely new level.
“With shoppers spending less time browsing, it’s crucial that we work to minimize out of stocks and maximize share of visible inventory,” he said. He described new directions to sales representatives, refocusing them on merchandising in a way that has resulted in increased share of displays of floor stock.
The company also is taking a thoughtful approach toward marketing and innovation. One of the world’s largest advertisers (with expenses of $4.2 billion in 2019), Coca-Cola is pausing large marketing campaigns and new product introductions, attuned to the current state of the “consumer mindset,” Mr. Quincey said.
Like baking, online has not yet become a major sales channel for CSD manufacturers, and the pandemic has been something of a wake-up call for Coca-Cola when it comes to the reality that e-commerce will play an increasingly important role in the future of the consumer packaged foods business.
“We believe the accelerating expansion of the online channel is sustainable, and we want to continue to be well positioned for long-term growth,” he said. The company is shifting “toward package sizes that are fit-for-purpose for online sales.”
Mr. Quincey is confident that as in previous crises over its 134-year history, Coca-Cola will emerge stronger from this one. A thoughtful response will yield a similar outcome for the baking industry.