Coke Confronts Its Big Fat Problem

Sandy Douglas drinks one Coca-Cola every day. He likes it early, before noon, sometimes accompanied by a cup of coffee. “You get an espresso, you get your caffeine and have this for lunch, and you’re ahead,” he says between sips from Coke’s old-fashioned 8-ounce glass bottle. When it’s over, he doesn’t allow himself a second. “I will probably have a Coke Zero in the afternoon at some point,” he concedes, but not another regular one because it has too many calories. “That’s approximately my daily regimen.”

For anyone else this is unremarkable, but Douglas is president of Coca-Cola North America, which means it’s his job to sell as much of the fizzy, sugary soda as possible, and admitting that he limits himself to less than a can of Coke a day for health reasons might not seem the best way to go about it. At 52, Douglas has been with Coca-Cola (KO) for 26 years and is very much the company man. He dresses in dark suits. He looks golf-course tan. He carries himself like someone who’s always ready to lecture on the benefits of the product he’s selling. He talks in a form of Coke-speak—“the pause that refreshes,” “our job is to refresh the world”—that would have any public-relations manager giddy with delight.

Coca-Cola Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Muhtar Kent gave Douglas the North America job in January, essentially asking him to turn around a decade-long decline in American soda sales. Most days since then, Douglas has walked the hallways of the company’s Atlanta headquarters, past the polished wood walls adorned with vintage Coca-Cola ads and display cases full of knickknacks and long-expired coupons for 5¢ Cokes, thinking about the nearly impossible task ahead of him. There are 41 bottles of Coca-Cola in the conference room where he’s holding a meeting—2-liters and tallboys, plastics of all sizes, aluminum bottles, and the classic red can. They speak to a specific type of American culture where bigger is better, one that exists outside of foodie-ism and Michelle Obama’s nutrition campaign and the general explosion in health consciousness that has lately put Coke on the wrong side of just about every consumer lifestyle trend. Douglas believes Coca-Cola needs to refocus on the one thing it does best: sell bottles of Coke. This is the beginning, he says, of “what I might call the phased relaunch of Coca-Cola in the U.S.”

Given all the choices out there, people just aren’t drinking as much Coke. Douglas has watched this happen from his perch at headquarters, checking numbers reports and meeting with the company’s vast network of bottlers. And you don’t need inside access to the data to detect the trend. Just ask Joe Davis, a self-described “frontline stocking grunt” at a Walmart (WMT) in Spokane, Wash. “Coke doesn’t move as much as we’ve seen it move in the past,” he says.

Across the country, Sevan Curukcu, who owns and runs a BP station in Lodi, N.J., has noticed the same thing. When Curukcu moved his family to the U.S. from Turkey in 2001, he opened the BP franchise and quickly found that all anyone ever wanted to buy was a Coke or maybe a Snapple. Today? “It’s all Red Bull or water.” In his gas station, Curukcu has relegated Coca-Cola and its carbonated competitors (Pepsi, Dr Pepper, and all the decaffeinated, low-calorie iterations thereof) to one refrigerator in the corner. The rest of the store is stocked with iced tea, juices, and lots of water and energy drinks. “See what I mean?” he asks as a 20-year-old waitress walks up to his counter and purchases two liters of water and two 20-ounce cans of Red Bull.

(Bloomberg Businessweek)

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