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Coca-Cola's Sebastian Kroth on awards, lockdown and brave brands

Following his award win at our Brave Awards in June, we caught up with Coca-Cola's Sebastian Kroth, Brand Director - Western Europe.


Firstly, congratulations on winning our One to Watch award at our Brave Awards 2020 a couple of months ago. How did it feel to win?

I feel very honored, proud and happy at the same time. It felt like the icing on the cake after having worked with the team to create this great product and bring it to market so quickly. I felt the award was as much for them as it was for me.

What do you think tipped things in your favour with the judges? Any tips for those entering next year?

Honestly, I don’t know.  Perhaps it was a combination of the right “what’s” and “how’s” shown in the project that my leadership could be evaluated against. I think the passion and speed associated with bringing this product to market came through. There were two real firsts associated with the launch of Coca-Cola Signature Mixers. We co-created on a liquid level with experts outside the company and we have launched a glass bottle for a Coca-Cola product that does not have the beloved iconic contour shape. And when it comes to the “how’s”, everyone who has worked in a big multinational can imagine the vision, innovative drive, level of collaboration, influence and in the end braveness for sure required from the entire team and myself to turn this from being just another nice idea into a market reality.

Now that the dust has settled, has winning the award changed anything for you in terms of your day-to-day working life?

I would say that I have not changed anything specific in the way I work day to day, but the recognition from a renowned expert panel like The Marketing Society is confirmation from an outside perspective that my interpretation of how to lead and inspire works. I feel enthused and excited about what’s next and certainly gives me confidence that my instincts are good when it comes to leadership and making stuff happen. I am also really looking forward to taking part in the Marketing Leaders Program with the Marketing Society and hope to continue to broaden my perspective, network and further strengthen and build on my leadership skills.

And speaking of your working life, what’s been happening at Coca-Cola during lockdown, has the business changed much? What challenges have you faced and what brave ways have you tackled them?

For all its been a difficult time and we have all had to adjust to the new normal and ways of working flexibly. From a business perspective, as the world went into lockdown, we temporarily suspended our planned marketing activity and redirected our resources instead toward our most critical priorities: doing everything possible to ensure our people’s safety and wellbeing; as well as focusing our efforts on how we could make a tangible difference for our retail partners and in our communities. We subsequently pledged to donate more than $100m globally to organizations leading local relief efforts towards those communities that most needed it.

We returned with our Open Like Never Before Campaign in August which champions an optimism about what we have all learnt that will help us to take this moment and make it count: to be open, like never before, because open minds are the most powerful thing we have. It is founded in the belief that we do not need to go ‘back’ to normal: instead, we can move forward, together, and make the world different – and better. It’s a campaign of many parts.  It’s about a big philosophy - of hope, inspiration and optimism - that we believe will resonate with people everywhere. It also supported and celebrates our retail partners too, including small businesses, local hotels, cafes and restaurants, many of whom have been through a very challenging time, but who have always been at the heart of our social fabric.

Like many businesses we have adapted our ways to be virtual where possible. From a personal perspective there are challenges in terms of shifting from real connections to virtual ones. With that comes adapting my leadership style to support my team where they need it most and building in time to encourage real conversations and to ensure that everyone is listened to and heard.  I follow the principle of “Accept what you can’t control and act on what you can control”, and always try to find the positive angle when challenges come along. Change is inevitable and being able to embrace change has its positives. For example, my wife and I have just had a second child and the flexibility of my work life now has also enabled us to make a temporary move from Berlin to Cologne, to be close to family who can give us a little extra support and love during these strange times.

Outside of Coca-Cola, what lockdown brand campaigns have you seen that have particularly impressed you?

In general, I have been really impressed with the speed and flexibility of many businesses to change their core products to help society and communities at large. Those businesses that made safety equipment, medical supplies and hand sanitisers shows the greater good in the world. I wouldn’t single out a specific brand here, as it has been a collective industry effort and I’m also extremely proud of the contributions that my own company has made across the world.  On a more creative level, I liked how Netflix have encouraged people to stay at home by leveraging OOH sites by printing serial spoilers or Nike with their Living Room Cup offering virtual competition you against some of the best athletes in the world. If you think that further, it just shows the power of brands to make a positive impact on society. On a more operational level, I was deeply impressed to see how businesses had to change so fast to purely survive and as a result of the forced change some took their business to the next level.

Finally, one example that really struck a chord with me was when mixologist and bar owner Max Venning who worked with us on Coca-Cola Signature Mixers turned one of his London businesses Top Cuvée into a meal kit, wine and cocktail delivery service. The guys delivered direct to consumers within an hour locally and next day nationwide, and it was really successful. That’s true leadership there!

And finally, if you had one brave tip for other marketers out there during this time, what would it be?

Embrace the fact that true 'people leadership' is more relevant than ever. And trust, collaboration and being a team player are not only a necessity, but will change culture and outcome for the better.