Global thinking, Local vision – What the Liberal Democrats can learn from how Coca-Cola operates in Africa

With the exception of Cuba and North Korea Coca-Cola is sold in every country on earth. Altogether, 1.7 billion servings of their products (the group has a portfolio of around 500) are sold every day, and that number is increasing year on year. While Africa produces around 10% of the company’s total revenue and volume the group expects this to double in less than six years, meaning that by 2020 the continent will boast more Coca-Cola consumers than the US and Europe combined.

While the comparison of a political party and the sales strategy of a multi-national corporation on another continent may seem poles apart, Coca-Cola’s success story provides some valuable lessons for an organisation needing to re-launch its brand to overcome a number of barriers to reconnect with a disillusioned electorate. 

Real-time data

Coca-Cola is obsessional in collecting what it calls ‘real-time’ data – that is, collating localised sales reports regarding promotions, distribution, product placement etc. and reacts to it (relatively) instantly by adapting the product (i.e. how the drinks are sold) in order to help maximise sales. While the Lib Dems need to have a shared list of policies, these policies need to be prioritised, packaged and presented to the electorate at local level so then local parties can adapt to changes in local attitudes and local events. While a policy announcing increased spending on national flood defences would be welcomed across the country, the policy would have a higher precedence in areas recently effected by flooding (such as Cumbria) than in those who weren’t.

Micro-Distribution Centres

Due to the poor transport and freight infrastructure of many remote areas in Africa, top-down distribution models (i.e. bringing the products from the warehouse to the stores in a huge lorry) do not work in the same way they do in North America and Europe. To overcome the limitations in infrastructure many locals buy Coca-Cola products in bulk and then sell them on (usually transporting them by bike and handcart) in hard-to-reach areas. To help facilitate this Coca-Cola have set up over 3000 Micro-Distribution Centres (MDCs) across the continent to help distribute their products even further. On this note local Liberal Democrats should try and have representatives as close to the electorate as possible, preferably with street level representatives, in order to act as their own kind of MDC so then they can collate and disseminate information quickly and to improve real-time data. This, backed up with street-level Focus leaflets, can allow these representatives to become ‘go-to’ people for information and local issues; allowing them to feed into real-time data ever more effectively.

Adaptive local marketing

As local distributers in the more remote areas of Africa have little money for marketing the products they sell from their bikes and handcarts, they are completely (if inadvertently) reliant on the company’s aspirational global marketing of the Coca-Cola brand. While the current global slogan for Coca-Cola is ‘open happiness’, that message is localised dependant on the needs and attitudes of the area. In Latin America, happiness is represented as part of family life, while in South Africa happiness is celebrated as a form of sereet-I, or ‘community respect’. To effectively promote Liberal Democrat policies nationally, overarching policy statements and goals must be loose enough to allow for being repackaged and reshaped according to the local needs as mentioned above and as shown in the real-time data.

Primarily, the reason Coca-Cola is a successful global brand is because there is a huge demand for their products. However, the reason that demand exists is because Coca-Cola are adaptive to local markets. The company uses instant feedback to help shape their approaches and changes its distribution practices to meet the needs of their customers. Their voice is global, but their message is local, and allows consumers to buy a lifestyle rather than just a product. The Liberal Democrats also have an inspirational message based on liberty, equality and community but how this message is reflected across the country has to differ because different areas of our country differ, as each area having its own needs, wants and priorities. Like Coca-Cola our thinking must be global, but our vision must be local.

* Ian Thomas is the pseudonym for a party member. His identity is known to the Lib Dem Voice editorial team.

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  • Actually, Coke is sold in Cuba – it’s imported via Mexico. Coca Cola just can’t sell it directly.

  • Behind this success story lies a much darker story.
    Coca Cola has been the pre-eminent product in Africa for many many years.
    When I worked in Zambia in the 1970s I saw a long queue of women at the butchers, queuing up to buy cow intestine. They had their babies hitched up in the usual way. Some were feeding their babies Coca Cola straight out the bottle. A telling image, which highlights many of Africa’s problems.
    Africa is used as a dumping ground for product unwanted by USA and Europe, especially pharmaceuticals and agro-product. Our factory ships are fishing off the coast of West Africa, drastically reducing fish stocks for those subsistence fishermen relying on fish to feed their families.
    We could and should be doing much more in Africa to combat poor education, abject poverty, hunger and disease. If we do not do more, the migrations we witness today will pale into insignificance.
    Yet, in many ways we are doing the reverse.

  • Peter Davies 21st Jan '16 - 4:14pm

    Targeting geographical communities has been the Liberal strategy for over forty years. During that time communities have become steadily less geographical. The 2016 UK version of the African village is spread across several constituencies and may well not know the names of its physical neighbours. Our dilemma is that we can only win FPTP seats by targeting geographically but neither our messaging nor word-of-mouth transmission work on that basis.

  • Lester Holloway 22nd Jan '16 - 9:12am

    There are several reasons why Coca Cola in Africa isn’t a great example to highlight. It has been marketed as a product that is good for you, and as a result it sucks money away from nutritional foodstuffs, including from poorer communities that desperately need more nutrition. It is priced at a level that is only just affordable, meaning some in Africa see it as a treat, when in reality it is just water, sugar, acid and chemicals. And it’s benefits as a cleaning product are not mentioned! Instead it roots teeth in areas without dentists and gives Africans no healthy or nutritional benefits that take away rather than add to life. If there are any parallels to draw it is between Coca Cola on Africa and Nestle’s powdered baby milk, rather than the Liberal Democrats.

    A better example to use would be Nando’s, a successful South African company that provides benefits to the West by pitching fast food as a restaurant experience, allowing those of modest income an evening out at less than the cost of most restaurants in an ‘ethnic setting’ that is welcomed and appreciated by its customers. And it’s image is an asset and sets it apart from more downmarket fast food chains. A far better example to follow as a party.

  • Alex H 20th Jan ’16 – 9:57am……………….To be fair Dan I go on to say (straght after thatr sentance) ‘However, the reason that demand exists is because Coca-Cola are adaptive to local markets’. Coca-Cola have built up a glocal image but then adapt that image to serve the needs of their local area. Coca-Cola have been in Africa for 90 years and it has taken a long time to build up their products image in the continent, and while it may also take the Lib Dems a long time to rebuild their image it is something I know the party is capable of doing…………..

    Coca-Cola are popular because they DON’T adapt and are seen as “America”, with all that entails….In the 1960s I travelled extensively through West Africa and, in even the smallest village where the only electricity was to a bar/cafe, “Coke” was almost always in the fridge and the ‘prized’ ad posters were often US…

    The ‘Guiness’ adverts, however, boasted, “A Baby in Every Bottle”, so I suppose that was adapting…

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