Change tends to happen in unexpected ways and none more so than the spark for Coca-Cola CEO Muhtar Kent’s recent announcement that “we want to be part of the solution” when it comes to the global fight against obesity.
Bea Perez, the chief sustainability officer (CSO) of Coke, which is blamed by many for contributing to the global rise in obesity, is married to an executive of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which is seeking to reverse the epidemic.
After Perez took over as CSO nearly two years ago, he challenged her about whether she wanted to be part of the problem or the solution by inviting an obesity expert round to their house.
Perez picks up the story: “He said I will bring someone home. Hear her out and understand the issues, and if you care about it, you will change.
“She was a scientist studying chronic illness and her daughter and my daughter were in the same school class. She talked about the science of what they knew and said we had such a great opportunity to help but recognised we were not sure what to do about it.
“She said you might not think you are the people who can help solve obesity but just completing 150 minutes of exercise every week reduces obesity and if you can get people to do that and measure it, you will make a difference.
“She said we don’t talk about you as a big evil brand but see you as having the opportunity to help create change.”
Perez says her husband has helped her to see her work through the eyes of her own two children, and sitting on the board of a local hospital has made her painfully aware of the impacts of obesity.
“The reason our CEO said we will take action is because obesity has become a global problem,” she tells the Guardian at the Sustainable Brands conference in San Diego. “It is a tragedy to see what is happening to children who are facing chronic illness and heart disease, which none of us had to deal with.”
That initial meeting in her home led Perez to begin an uncomfortable personal journey of discovery and also to start a very difficult conversation within the company about being more open about Coca-Cola’s responsibilities in the area of obesity.
Protecting the world’s most iconic brand is foremost in the minds of the senior management team, so for them to open, what many fear to be Pandora’s box, represents a huge risk.
Critics outside of the company, however, view Coke’s change of direction either as an attempt to stave off greater regulation or representing only the first baby step in addressing the epidemic.
Anna Lappé, the food activist and best-selling author, argues that its commitments represent nothing more than a “feel-good PR blitz which is just another example of the company trying to protect brand goodwill amidst growing public concern about its most profitable products: sodas.
“Public relations campaigns like this one are all about inoculating the company from the rightful concerns of communities and public health officials everywhere.”
Perez paints a very different picture, and talks about the tough internal conversations that took place before Kent’s announcement of four commitments, which apply to the more than 200 countries where it does business, including offering low- or no- calorie beverage options in every market, providing transparent nutritional information, helping get people moving by supporting physical activity programmes, and marketing responsibly.
“What you might have sensed is a lot of thought and debate took place within the company,” she says. “Which problem do you try to solve first, how bold can we be, is it credible coming from our company?
“The fact is that we are all afraid of hearing the truth and of not being able to do something about it; after all, we are human beings.
“I shared the information I had learnt with Kent and he said we have to make a commitment – people will forgive us if we make mistakes and will not if we don’t do anything.”
“Being vulnerable is a very scary place. You have to sit and think through how you can handle it. The most important thing is the actions we take and there is no question we believe we have to act.
“We cannot solve the problem on our own and it cannot be solved by one action. It will take courage for every company to stand up and for every individual to take action.”
Given the complexity of the obesity issue, Perez said the company made the decision not to try to overly finesse its strategy but make some commitments while acknowledging Coca-Cola will need to adapt them over time as it measures the impact it is having.
What Perez also recognises is that the company, which for many of its 127 years has had a command and control approach to the way it communicates with its customers and stakeholders, is going to have to become more open to a two-way conversation.
Acknowledging that the company did not have the infrastructure in place to hold an effective dialogue, Perez says it is starting to actively engage with critics.
“We need to talk to people and understand whether their concerns are real or a result of a lack of information,” she says.
“We brought in mummy bloggers, some of whom are highly critical and listened to them. Underneath their anger, it was about wanting a better place for their families and wanting to make the right decisions and not knowing how to do that if we weren’t talking to them.”