The Coca-Cola Company is undeniably one of the most iconic businesses in the world. Approaching its 131st Anniversary in May, Coca-Cola is available in 194 of the 196 countries in the world, making it the most universal soda beverage on the planet.

Renowned for its marketing prowess and its relentless focus on delivering brilliant experiences for their consumers, I was fortunate to sit down with Coca-Cola Canada’s VP of Integrated Marketing Communications, David Allard, to discuss how Digital Transformation and Culture intersect within the Coca-Cola Canada organization.

HB: Give us some context for your role and responsibility here?

DA: When I joined Coca-Cola Canada nine months ago, my initial role was to lead Marketing Services, including driving the digital marketing agenda for the company. Since then, as we looked at the Marketing organization, my role has morphed. We always have to be looking to the future, and what that means for structure, capabilities and how we work with our bottler partners, our customers like WalMart, Loblaws and McDonalds and, ultimately, our consumers. The scope is extensive.

HB: Digital Transformation has almost become a cliché for any project that has a digital component to it. How do you define it here at Coca-Cola Canada?

DA: Too often “Digital Transformation” can be decoded internally as unlocking marketing opportunity. And when you’re responsible for delivering meaningful and relevant experiences to your consumers, Marketing is definitely the first stop on the bus. The larger opportunity of Digital Transformation is how we look at solving problems for our customers and our consumers. In real terms, that means looking at historically siloed aspects of the business and working in a truly collaborative fashion to break those down. Silos that may have formerly existed between IT, Key Account Teams, Operations etc. So while there’s nothing wrong with starting with Marketing and working back into the organization, it doesn’t always have to be an organizational-wide initiative to gain traction.

HB: Collaborating locally, and even globally, with the labyrinth of customers you have must make for an interesting level of collaboration. Talk to me about that dynamic.

DA: It certainly is. Particularly on two fronts. One is looking at how Digital helps us add value to our customer relationships with the WalMarts and so on. Their digital teams are also aggressively looking at how they execute their own digital transformation so there’s an immediate opportunity for shared value right there. Two is how together we add value for our consumers. Delivering those meaningful consumer experiences together.

HB: You’re a successful 130 year old organization. Is this a Culture that embraces the speed of change Digital Transformation is creating or are there elements culturally that are more methodical about change? 

DA: To exist for that long and for our brands to have the stature that they do, change is part of our DNA. But it is more about agility. What has become very apparent globally is our increased emphasis on becoming a learning organization. We have a core value of “acting like an owner” which is easy to see as words on a page. But we’re reinterpreting that value, particularly as it relates to how we look at failure and, importantly, how we look at failure as a way to learn faster. For example in some of our briefing processes we’ve deliberately added more inputs for organization-wide learning, rather than just the traditional marketing research and tracking metrics, as a way to capture and share those lessons and failures more quickly. That’s a new behavior.

HB: Cultural change like the kind you reference needs buy-in, endorsement, executive sponsorship to actually occur successfully. Talk to me about that sponsorship here at Coca-Cola Canada?

DA: The most visible endorsement of this culture change is actually in the area of talent. There’s a deep understanding from our executives that if we want to be different tomorrow then we need to hire differently than we have in the past. And that we need to align the entire organization to the fact that the talent required for the marketing team of the future is very very different. Interestingly, because the templates don’t exist for these types of roles, one of the greatest learnings for me has been the conversations across the company to try and define what is that resource, that new skill set, that different type of individual we want. Is it an IT person or a brand manager? Well actually its both – in one person.

At a global level, watching the hiring of David Godsman as Chief Digital Marketing Officer for the entire global organization shows that this talent recognition starts at the very top of Coca-Cola. We see it here in Canada too. It really feels like we’re very linked up in how we’re seeing the talent needs for the future.

HB: So how are you spreading that new way of thinking and acting across the organization here in Canada?

DA: I think it starts with a tension that I believe is uniquely Coca-Cola Canada. That tension between the stature of our brands and the authenticity in our Culture. Culturally that authenticity means genuinely empowering our people to do the best work of their lives but also recognizing that diversity is an active part of how we work together and solve problems together. So the tension between our aspirations and our culture is where the greatest opportunity sits. It is also going to, ideally, be the greatest enabler of our success.

The other gift we have at Coca-Cola Canada is this incredible global system we can go out to and see what’s worked in other markets and how they’ve tackled these changes. Which means that, like our packaging, we may be 90% globally dictated but it’s the 10% local fingerprint that gives us the agility we need.

HB: Talk to me about how you see the values of Coca-Cola Canada being redefined or reimagined to fit this digitally-transformed organization you’re creating here.

DA: Our values of Collaboration, Acting like an Owner, Inspiring Others have gotten to where we are today. So it’s not about changing those values per se but how each of us individually interpret those values, that will make the difference for the future.

Here’s an example. We recently had a meeting with the head of our North American bottling partners and he talked about pushing the boundaries and asking for forgiveness. His mandate to his people at the bottler was remarkably similar to our IMC idea of learning from failures. That’s when you know the values are genuinely pervasive and intrinsic across Coca-Cola. As a leader I find that inspiring.

HB: As a leader, a culture carrier, what do you see is your role to “walk the talk”? What are you doing to manifest these new behaviours?

DA: Listening “more actively” is the most important behavior for me personally. The other is this idea of acting like an owner; holding myself accountable to be more rigorous in questioning why we do certain things. Being courageous in those moments instead of falling back on process or trying to overly-align everything. If we really aspire to these meaningful experiences for our consumers and customers, then we can’t be afraid to ask questions and challenge the status quo.

More broadly in Canada, we’re moving to a place where we embrace and reward those who take chances and try things that have never been done. They may not all be successes but it’s about reinforcing a learning mentality so our people are not afraid to try new things and “act like an owner”.

HB: Have you had any epiphanies as you’ve gone through this Transformation here?

DA: Actually mine was going through the recruiting process for our new IMC (Integrated Marketing Communications) team. In talking to candidates it was this Eureka moment about balancing the stature of our brands yet instilling this recognition that we at Coca-Cola Canada don’t have all the answers and having the humility and modesty to accept the “not knowing” part. It’s a unique tension but an important one if we’re going to continue to grow as an organization. In particular, that modesty is something I think we should celebrate more because it is quite unique.

HB: What advice would you give your peers going through a similar situation?

DA: Listen, listen, listen is the first part. The other, as marketers, is to remember to use the company values as guidance, not handcuffs, to how we act and make decisions. Lastly, and this is particularly a Canadian reality, is to foster an intimate marketing community – I mean we all know each other already – where we can legitimately share and learn from each other. We’re all going through similar challenges, as CPG marketers or customers, so fostering a sharing mentality would be fantastic.


This post is part of an ongoing series exploring the intersection of Culture and Digital Transformation – and the challenges organizations face when those two forces meet. This challenge will, I believe, shape the business agenda for the next decade so we all have a lot to learn. 

We intend to highlight organizations that are uniquely traversing this challenge and share their stories.

If you’d like to share your story, please DM me on Twitter @ZimHilton or reach out via LinkedIn.

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