Zoe Howorth's biggest challenge since becoming the top UK marketer at Coca-Cola and taking charge of a £1bn portfolio of brands is fast approaching. She has steered those brands through the once-in-a-lifetime-opportunity of a home Olympics, and contended with the effects of the recession, but next year, now known in marketing circles as 'empty 2013', will provide her sternest test.
All marketers are thinking of ways to inject some magic, but the brand fame of the soft drink - Coke is said to be the world's second-most-understood word, after OK, and responsible for the generally accepted modern depiction of Santa Claus - means that whatever path Howorth decides to tread will be scrutinised. Like McDonald's and Starbucks, Coca-Cola sits within that select group of successful US brands that touches millions of consumers, and must deal with the bouquets and brickbats that come with membership of this exclusive club.
Howorth says that during London 2012 she felt like 'the world was looking at you', but is confident that her work on the brand, which celebrated its 125th anniversary last year, has lived up to its proud advertising heritage.
Coca-Cola, an Olympic worldwide partner, built its 2012 marketing programme for what it calls its 'legacy brands' - Coke, Diet Coke, Coke Zero, Powerade and Glaceau Vitamin Water - around sport and music. Worthy youngsters were nominated to carry the Olympic Torch through its 'Future Flames' activity, and it enlisted up-and-coming Olympic athletes to feature in its 'Move to the Beat' campaign.
In a marketing coup, the company also recruited producer and DJ Mark Ronson to create a song with the help of urban artist Katy B. In addition, Coke's torch relay 'Finale' concert was a viral success, boosted partly by artists such as Labrinth and The Wanted sharing content through their own social-media channels.
The 'Finale' video was viewed 577,000 times, and over the course of the torch relay, Coke distributed more than 1m commemorative bottles. This all helped Coca-Cola achieve its highest-ever 'brand love' score among its teenage target audience of 12- to 19-year-olds, according to Millward Brown data.
Howorth, a Coke veteran of 14 years, whose warm and welcoming manner is accompanied by the slightest hint of a Birmingham accent, is undaunted by the pressure to maintain that momentum.
'One of the things I'm most proud about is building a great 2013 plan,' she says.
So, how do you solve a problem like 2013? The specifics of next year's strategy, across all Coca-Cola's brands, are still under wraps, but Howorth says the essence of it is focused more on 'brand stories', rather than 'assets and partnerships', as has previously been the case.
She insists 'red Coke' will always be the 'engine' of the business. 'Its name is on the door and it's the world's biggest brand, so we're never going to step off that.' She adds, however, that she is 'passionate' about making sure all Coca-Cola's brands get their time in the sun next year. This is likely to result in Fanta and Sprite, segment leaders in their own right, being brought back into focus, following a spell on the back benches this year, due to the lack of their own dedicated Olympic partnerships.
Diet Coke's 30th birthday celebrations will play a 'central' role in the company's marketing, supported by a fashion programme intended to be worthy of the brand's status: about 3m people in the UK drink a Diet Coke every day. Howorth claims that linking with fashion has proved a successful way to keep the drink 'relevant, current and accessible,' and insists it will be '100% about fashion' for the foreseeable future.
The plans will adhere to Coca-Cola's '70-20-10' strategy. Howorth explains that each brand or media plan is built on this ethos. 'The 70% is what we know works - we've done it before, we've evaluated it, and we have good ROI on it,' she says. Twenty per cent of the marketing will involve strategies that were tested the previous year and proved a success, such as enlisting Jean Paul Gaultier to design bespoke bottles and cans for Diet Coke, while 10% is reserved for fresh ideas.
'The 10% will always have a strong research agenda behind it,' adds Howorth, explaining that it gives her an opportunity to take risks and push the brand's boundaries, without 'messing around with the fundamentals that I know work'.
One brand she won't be working on, however, is Innocent Drinks. When Coca-Cola acquired its first stake in Innocent in 2009, speculation was rife on how this would affect the latter. Since then, Coke has increased its share to a 58% stake. Rumours suggesting that it will eventually take complete control continue to rumble on.
Although Innocent featured in umbrella marketing for Coca-Cola's 'healthy' portfolio, Howorth, probably mindful of the sensitivity of this issue, quashes speculation on future tie-ups when it is suggested that Innocent offers an avenue to tackle rival PepsiCo's Tropicana brand.
'Innocent is a wonderful brand but a separate business, and I don't think there is any intention to change that,' she says.
Howorth reports to Coca-Cola GB's general manager, Jon Woods, but her marketing plan is directed by North West Europe and Nordics marketing director, Nick Robinson. This set-up is a result of the Coke globalisation process that came into effect three years ago, which means the company no longer creates UK-specific advertising. While this might sound like a recipe for bland pan-European campaigns, Howorth talks up the positives.
'Nick will supply me with the content and the top-line strategy, which I'll then take, drive through and deliver, framing and shaping it for this market,' she says.
The advantage of pan-European work, she argues, is that 'it can be created with the scale, richness and quality that I would struggle to justify to focus just on Great Britain'.
The approach works, according to Howorth, because the company's brands are based on 'big ideas' that are universally applicable, such as Coke's emphasis on 'optimism'.
Similarly, Howorth cites Fanta, which she describes as 'based on the insight of play', adding that 'in a world where there's lots of pressure and stress for teenagers, in every country, the act of celebrating play and having a less serious attitude is a sentiment that is (enjoyed) here, the same as it is in Japan or in the Philippines'.
Another important aspect of her work that feeds into a centralised approach is digital. The sharp rise in online interaction between consumers and brands means, Howorth contends, that major campaigns such as 'Move to the Beat' would be difficult to create locally 'at that quality consumers demand'.
She explains that during London 2012, Coke had about 60 pieces of content to communicate through different media channels and consumer touchpoints, in comparison with about eight when it sponsored the football World Cup in 2010.
Despite marketers' rush to engage consumers on the platforms where the latter are already having conversations, Howorth insists that CokeZone, the company's online rewards portal, is still relevant. She describes the platform, with its 2.7m members, as the world's biggest FMCG brand-loyalty scheme. 'We have a huge team working on it, and because of the frequency of our brands, it's important that we reward and talk to our consumers - they are precious.'
Howorth may refer to Coca-Cola as a 'wholesome' company, but that is unlikely to be the first word that springs to mind among many food lobby groups seeking a suitable adjective for the world's biggest purveyor of sugary drinks.
'Yes, it's a business, but we want to do the right thing,' she insists, claiming that the company takes consumers' health seriously when marketing its products. A 'significant' push on Coke's 'light' drinks, such as Coke Zero, is planned for next year.
'The whole obesity debate is a complex issue and there are a lot of factors, but we offer choice,' adds Howorth. 'There will always be a low-calorie version being promoted, so that people have that option.' Coke's involvement in sport, she insists, is not just about 'bringing people together', but also 'promoting a healthy, active lifestyle'.
Howorth claims too that sustainability is crucial to Coke's agenda, pointing to the creation of a major recycling plant and the development of 100% recyclable 'PlantBottle' packaging over the past two years.
'We're a soft drink, we're not Unicef,' she admits, but emphasises Coca-Cola's desire 'to do (its) bit'. She says that Coke's sustainability plans will be developed further in January with a 'genuine, tangible commitment' to be announced by the company.
Moreover, Howorth insists the ambition to 'keep investing in a recession' remains strong at Coca-Cola. If she can draw succour from this, and carry the momentum gained from the one-off nature of 2012 into 2013, the year ahead could be more fruitful than empty.
Coke Zero: 'Unlock the 007 in you'
Coke Zero renewed its partnership with the James Bond franchise this year ahead of the release of Skyfall in the UK last month, in which the brand appears.
The campaign, which kicked off at the end of September, included a TV ad that showed the brand's 'hero' character fighting to save a damsel in distress, dodging obstacles through a series of Bond-style stunts, while every character hummed 007's theme tune instead of speaking.
All activity, such as cinema, PR, on-pack and experiential, ran under the strapline 'Unlock the 007 in you' and special editions of the Coke Zero bottle were produced as part of the push.
Lives South West London.
Family Married with two sons.
Favourite brand Pret A Manger. 'Not a day goes by without me popping in at least once.'
Hobbies Travel and cycling - Howorth recently biked from London to Liverpool. She also joined WACL this year. '(They are) such a great bunch of warm and inspiring women. I'm in charge of the Future Leaders Fund, which is open to any female marketer who is just starting out. We can fund 90% of training to help them build skills for the future.'
- Various brand manager positions, Procter & Gamble
- Senior brand manager, McVitie's Digestives, United Biscuits
- Various positions, rising to GB marketing director, The Coca-Cola Company,
(January 1998 to present)
THREE CHALLENGES FOR HOWORTH
- Driving the UK soft-drinks category with her 2013 plans, which, she says, are built on strong insights.
- Pushing health awareness by making sure low- calorie options are front of mind for consumers.
- Becoming more agile and reactive with Coke's UK marketing activity.
$1.15bn - UK sales of the My Coke portfolio (Coca-Coca, Diet Coke and Coke Zero) in the year to 18 August
This article was first published on marketingmagazine.co.uk