Who said we have to go back to normal?
This month, Coca-Cola goes back on air after five months of “going dark.” A long period when we were silent but not “idle.” When the pandemic struck, we suspended our commercial advertising, choosing to redirect a big part of our marketing funds to support the Covid-19 relief effort. It was a hard decision, but also the right thing to do. With more than $120 million contributed to local initiatives we hope to have played a part in helping prevent the further spread of the virus, while also supporting our communities and customers.
But we will go back on air with a slightly different approach. Open Like Never Before, is more than a campaign. Inspired by a poem of George Mpanga – known as George the Poet – it is a manifesto that marks a moment of change.
Our lives will most probably never be the same again. People often talk about a “new normal,” but what we really mean is a new world. One that needs to be reset. This is a chance to learn from the selflessness, courage and kindness we all saw in recent months. Our appreciation of all the precious things that we had taken for granted and our resolutions to keep what matters most can help us emerge stronger and create a better shared future. We don’t need to go back to the “old normal” – we can make a fresh start.
This is the optimistic message of Open Like Never Before, which perfectly reflects our purpose to refresh the world AND make a difference. It is a state of mind that invites us to celebrate our skin, our gender, our spirit and body everyday and open up to new experiences that can expand our lives. It’s a philosophy of hope and positivity that I believe can resonate with people everywhere.
The campaign also reflects what we – as business leaders – have learned during this globally shared experience. It has made us all pause and reflect. It magnified our fears and inadequacies, but also our strengths. At the start, we felt fragile and vulnerable. While these feelings remain for many, the pandemic has also shone a bright light on opportunities for personal, social and organisational change. And as far as we were concerned, we thought that it is a crisis that should not be wasted.
Focus on what matters most
As societies went into lockdown, these opportunities quickly became clear. As a business, we needed to act fast and decisively, with a clear focus on what mattered most. This reaction phase was all about setting the right priorities: the safety of our people, the continuity of our business and support for our communities. Those ones we call home.
Immediate actions were taken across our business: safety measures for production and distribution; remote working for office staff; moves to protect mental wellbeing; securing supply and production; prioritising our brands and activities; and working out how to stay relevant and humble with our consumers. And then, most significantly, we took action in the community. We contributed essential health equipment, sustained frontline health workers with refreshments and re-purposed our supply chain to produce materials like masks and hand-sanitiser. And while we abstained from commercial advertising, we offered our marketing channels to carry public health messages and recently drive traffic to our customers that suffered the most: the restaurants, the bars and hotels.
All this was done in super-quick time. More than 23 million vulnerable citizens benefited from our actions in my territory in Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA) and I feel personally humbled and proud of it. It was an unforgettable experience. And being unforgettable, also means we learned a lot. We learned new skills and behaviours that helped us adapt drastically not only to Covid -19, but also to what business schools call a Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous (VUCA) reality.
Soft skills, new behaviors
As well as taking action, we learned the critical importance of soft skills, like empathy, resilience and adaptability. Skills that are needed for businesses and individuals that want to thrive in the new normal.
The pandemic is above all a human tragedy. Yes, it needs to be tackled with science and diligence, but it also demands empathy on a giant scale. Listening, compassion and humility were essential for navigating this uncharted territory.
And at the same time, we needed to be resilient to last the course – bold and willing to take risks. Courageous, while also embracing our fears and vulnerabilities.
We also learned that going with the flow is the ultimate new skill: We all know about intellectual and emotional intelligence (IQ and EQ), but I’d argue adaptability quotient (AQ) is a new, equally important capability that came to the fore during this time as strong predictor for long term viability and success.
A legacy for business to build on
I believe these core soft skills, alongside growth behaviors like curiosity, inclusivity and agility, will be legacies felt across the business world as we rebuild after the pandemic.
Business students often ask me if the crisis will forge a new kind of business leader. I think it will. Old and tested models are no longer fit for purpose. We need to re-think and re-boot our behaviors and approaches to business. The pandemic has dramatically accelerated us along that path.
Teams are the new heroes in the increasingly network-organizations of the future. I don’t think analytical strategic thinkers will be as prized as they used to be; instead, I see a future for radical disruptors, inclusive collaborators and agile problem-solvers.
For us at Coca-Cola, and as our new Open Like Never Before campaign so powerfully conveys, these changes are helping us crystallize our values and emerge stronger and better equipped to face the uncertainties and challenges our society presents on a daily basis.
After all, these recent months haven’t just challenged us with Covid-19. We have continued to address the environmental threats and stay committed to our sustainability agenda. And of course we have also been shaken by the senseless killings in the USA and the rise of hate speech and injustice across the world. We have all been sad, frustrated and outraged.
Companies like ours that believe that diversity and inclusion are among our greatest strengths must speak up and take a stand for social and racial justice. It is our duty. We must put our resources and energy toward helping end the cycle of systemic racism and take action to tackle the hate speech and misinformation that fuels it. That’s why we paused all social media activity, to review our own social media policies and demand a higher level of accountability and transparency from our suppliers. And we will not resume social activity until we get reassurance that the social platforms we work with will not allow hate speech in their environment.
Life is full of challenges. We have not always been perfect with our choices as we prefer progress over perfection. We do not have all the answers either. But we never settle. Powered by our purpose and values and driven by the passion of our people, we can make a difference together with our business partners, community advocates and our fellow business leaders.
With the right mindset, skills, behaviors and above all, the ambition and positive intent we can “Act Like Never Before” and build a better shared future that we can all be proud of.
By Nikos Koumettis, Group President for Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA) for The Coca-Cola Company.