In our present era of digital commercial interfaces and impersonal, transnational corporations it is often all too easy to forget that behind every company – even the biggest and the most bureaucratic – lie human beings, and that said human beings, notwithstanding the exceptional market intelligence at their fingertips, are capable of making perplexing and illogical decisions. Such was the line of thinking that our Creative Director & CSO (‘CD&CSO’) found himself being seduced by upon reading that no less an entity than Coca-Cola itself is planning to enter the alcoholic beverages business.
To be precise, Coca-Cola (Japan) Company Limited is working on an iteration of Chu-Hi, a drink containing distilled shōchū. Chu-Hi alcopops – which typically contain between 3% and 8% alcohol – is a relatively new market which has experienced between 5% and 25% year-on-year growth since 2013 within Japan. Prima facie, there would appear to be a strong case for what Jorge Garduño – president of Coca-Cola’s Japanese business unit – has termed ‘experimentation in the low-alcohol category‘.
However – and after some reflection – we at Mediolana cannot help thinking that this project is one of the most specious we have ever come across, especially given the bigger picture of the Coca-Cola Company’s recent diversification drive: the Atlanta-based soft-drinks giant is confronting a seismic shift in consumer tastes as citizens in increasingly obese populations point the stubby finger of blame at purveyors of sugar-defined sodas. Coca-Cola has therefore invested massively – with varying degrees of success – in tea and water products which enjoy an apparently more benign popular image.
But by moving into alcohol – particularly at this juncture in history – Coca-Cola risks flying from the frying pan straight into the flammable, carcinogenic liquid. The alcohol industry is confronting the kinds of challenges which make the prospect of sugar taxes and concerned parents seem like negligible irritations: alarming sales declines, complete advertising bans in certain jurisdictions and generational cultural changes which are difficult if not impossible to counter. Indeed, alcohol companies are diversifying out of their core business, which makes one wonder how and why Coca-Cola is failing to reading the broader market signals.
In any event, scoring a cheap short term hit from an alcopops line – and even the broader diversification process – are total distractions from what Coca-Cola should be doing: reconfiguring what is indubitably one of the world’s most iconic and best-loved drinks brands for the twenty-first century. Upgrading distribution and recycling channels, transitioning to organic and fairly-traded ingredients and expanding the range of Coke-themed beverages to cater to an increasingly globalised palate cannot be put on the back burner any longer; moreover, they will need every ounce of corporate muscle to be realised in what is becoming an insanely competitive space.
Back in the more innocent days of the early 2000s, the person who would become Mediolana’s Creative Director & CSO (‘CD&CSO’) was enjoying a leisurely coffee (or at least a simulacrum of coffee) in a Cambridge Starbucks with a member of that relatively rare specimen: someone he knew from his own course. Much of the accompanying conversation is of historical interest only, but one explosive idea from that otherwise gentle discussion has stayed with our CD&CSO, namely the notion that just as Japan had successfully copied and then vastly improved upon mid-twentieth century Western industrialism, both Japan and Asian countries more generally could do this and more in the realm of cultural production.
In other words, the J.League – the top tier of Japan’s professional football pyramid, still a novelty but already viewed as wildly successful – was merely a harbinger of things to come. J.Movies, J.Novels and J.Design would all equal and then surpass their Western equivalents in terms of both technical and artistic merit; this was a process that was going to define the next hundred years.
In 2017, this process is not merely underway, but is attaining a depth and breadth that constantly surprises. As the excellent recent COPA90 mini-documentary These Asian Ultras Will Blow Your Mind illustrates, it is now the case that PSS Sleman, a second-tier football club in Indonesia – replete with its own ultras, the already-fabled and disproportionately female Brigata Curva Sud – can produce chants, choreography and devotion on a level that the more uncritically consumerist parts of Europe seem to have forgotten exist.
The big corollary of these developments is the burning, largely unspoken question of our times: can the Western world – particularly the United States – really handle multi-directional globalisation, a form of interaction which supplants the traditional core-periphery model with a more level playing field amongst partner-type entities?
At the time of writing, this question seems a rhetorical one. But erecting trade barriers at a time when – as richly evidenced by capital flows small and large – psychological barriers to commerce are coming down is not the answer of self-assured nations. Only by moving up the value chain can (semi-)monopolistic and lucrative positions be maintained. The alternative – decline at the hands of faster, hungrier competitors who can replicate cheaper than you can produce – is nothing but a prescription for more empty populism.