Ira Gleser, VP of Industry Communications for Coca-Cola Refreshments, and SAS General Manager Gene Gsell discussed how Coca-Cola approaches its business-to-business communications strategy and some of the unique challenges and opportunities that exist in crafting B2B communications on behalf of one of the most well-known brands on the planet.

Gene Gsell: You’ve had a very diverse background, having spent some time marketing financial services with Charles Schwab, then going to tools and hardware with Newell Rubbermaid, and now being at one of the greatest brands anywhere, Coca-Cola. Can you tell us a little bit about that progression?

Ira Gleser: The common theme in my career has been marketing communications and building brands, including really thinking about how to communicate to audiences in a creative, compelling way. My first tour of duty at Coca-Cola gave me a broad spectrum of experience in communications, marketing and customer management, and when I left in 2000 I started an 11-year journey which took me into some very different industries in terms of how they promoted their brands and value propositions to targeted audiences. With Schwab of course you had the affluent consumer. In tools and hardware you were talking to general contractors, tradesmen, and do-it-yourselfers. So for me the opportunity has always been thinking: who are we talking to, what are our key messages, how are we talking to them and how can we connect with them in a way that’s going to resonate? And if we sell some of our products and services along the way, and enhance our perception and goodwill with our customers/clients, then we’re doing our job effectively.

Now that you are back with Coca-Cola, what is your role there and what is your team responsible for?

We manage the B2B communications function within Coca-Cola Refreshments here in the U.S. If you’re a customer of ours and you’re in the foodservice, retail or convenience retail space, you’re more than likely getting information to help manage your business by going to industry/association events, or through trade publications or websites. You may also be tapping into social media, YouTube or other forms of media to stay current on the industry and see what your peers and competitors are doing. My team’s job is to create and disseminate content so that we’re reaching our customers in person, in print and online, with messaging that ties back to what we’re trying to achieve as a company and reinforces a positive perception of our company in the industries we serve. So we do that through a core team and several valuable agency partners. The scope of our work is focused on North America, though we do get involved in a few international projects on behalf of our Company.

How do you differentiate between the retail partners and the end consumer that you want to convince to come into those retail stores and purchase a Coke product?

Wedefine them in the exact same way, in terms of reaching our audience with compelling, creative messaging. We have teams of marketing pros that are thinking about consumer targets, identifying trends and insights, and how purchase decisions are made.  We then work in collaboration with our customers to apply these insights and develop programming and promotions that are going to create brand loyalty and purchase intent.  My team’s job is to focus on developing messaging to and building positive perceptions and engagement with our customer community. As I remind my team from time to time, the majority of our customers  are consumers of our brands as well. For instance, when customers see something like our new Freestyle machine, which allows you to create over 125 different soft drinks, their first reaction is as a consumer and what a fun experience the Freestyle provides. But then they put their business hat on and consider the business opportunity that the Coca-Cola Freestyle  provides to their store/restaurant and their brand. So as we promote this new innovation to the foodservice industry, we strive to communicate the consumer benefit and acceptance, as well as the business opportunity to our customers.

That is a real-time example of how we think about customers and consumers, and customers AS consumers. My team’s job is to think about how to orchestrate communications to our customers which provide them the game-changing data and success stories we’re seeing with Coca-Cola Freestyle in terms of increased brand perception, and increases in traffic and beverage incidence. We don’t lose sight of the fact that the majority of our customers are also our consumers, and they react to us not only as a vendor or business partner, but also as a brand. I think that is a very special dynamic that is unique to Coca-Cola.

It sounds like while one is broadly defined as your b-to-c strategy and the other as your b-to-b strategy, you can’t separate the two since one doesn’t live without the other.

That’s correct, and a great example of that is the fact that one of the things we’re now doing differently internally is reviewing our communications strategies and creative with senior leaders in our marketing organization. This provides an important check point to ensure we are abiding by our brand communication standards, but also the opportunity to review our B2B strategies and messaging to ensure that we are staying connected to how we want to represent and promote our flagship brand and our company.

As you deal with the different constituents, what channels of communication are you going after these days? 

When done right, trade events continue to be the single greatest customer engagement opportunity for our Sales  teams.  These events are put on by the industry associations that are the gatekeepers for our most important channels of business, so having strong business relationships with these associations is key. Certainly from an advertising standpoint we have also had a lot of internal debate and discussion around print and digital, and from what we have seen it really comes down to demographics. If you’re over 40 you still want to get your industry information/news via a magazine. If you’re an up-and-coming region manager, store manager or future retail leader, you’re going to have a Smart Phone in your hand rather than a magazine. So our media plans have to strike the right balance between print, online and digital so that we are effectively reaching all of our key customer constituents.

In addition to allocating more of our media budget to digital advertising, e are also focusing more on content that, when people click through our ads, takes them to a more robust portal, cokesolutions.com, that’s easy to navigate and allows our customers to have access to a broder variety of information and resources to help them grow their business . So the print and digital space is an area where we’ve really been challenging our agency partners and giving more thought to how we can more effectively disseminate our messaging and reinforce our thought leadership position and commitment to the industries and customers we serve.

Can you provide some examples of how you are doing things differently lately?

Something I’m excited about is what we’re calling impact programs, which back in the day may have been called value-add programs. An example of a new opportunity  we tested last year involves a program we just launched with SmartBrief. The metrics indicate that the program is successfully engaging our key audiences and allowing us to convey thought leadership and industry knowledge.  Our first effort presented content from The Coca-Coca Retailing Research Council, which consists of a group of retailers in the large store channel that publishes research studies every two years or so on topics they select that will benefit the industry. This new study happens to be on social networking, and we are promoting it and specifically focusing on some elements that will be of interest to not only retailers, but also other SmartBrief audiences because let’s face it, regardless of what business you are in, everyone is thinking about social media and how to utilize this medium to build their business and grow brand loyalty.

So under the headline of these impact programs, it’s not about media buys, it’s about exploring other opportunities to share content from a thought-leadership standpoint in areas that we know our customers are thinking about. From a PR standpoint, we’ve really sharpened our efforts in terms of not only being responsive to media requests, but also being very proactive and building stronger relationships with the key editors at the publications that our customers are reading.

How do you measure the influence and success of your efforts when these channels are constantly evolving?

That’s a challenge for anybody who’s operating in the B2Bcommunications space.

When it comes to the question of what success looks like, if the output of our efforts drives more customers to cokesolutions.com, and serves as a catalyst to a more robust dialog between our customers and our sales organization, that’s success to me. Weve learned a lot over this past  year and we will be applying that learning to the various ways we can measure the impact of our efforts in the marketplace and with our cusotmers. We have a very clearly articulated mission statement on our website that says we want to be our customer’s most valued supplier, and my team’s job is to bring that mission to life and reinforce it with relevant content every day through our communications and presence activities.  So it is not only about reach, but also about the impact we are having and measuring the different ways our customers are engaging with us as a result of interacting with our messaging in-person, online, or in print.

Is there any new strategy or initiative that Coca-Cola is pursuing this year that it may not have considered in the past?

We’re being more thoughtful and proactive in seeking speaking opportunities at industry events and conferences on topics that we believe are of interest to our customers and key stakeholders, and which also helps us put “a face on the brand.”.  A recent example of success in this area of industry engagement is with the recent National Restaurant Association (NRA) show in Chicago.  Many of our industry associations have been hesitant to allow manufacturers and suppliers on stage, because they are concerned it will turn into a sales presentation. And even though we’ve been a great partner with the National Restaurant Association for well over 70 years, we have never been invited to speak in their education tracks.

Several months ago we approached the NRA and showed them a unique, comprehensive study on consumer need states that we share with our restaurant customers, and offered to structure a session around this topic for their annual event. Then we basically had to go through a submission process. The association was a bit concerned; they wanted to know what we were selling, whether we had ads, what was in it for us? And we helped them understand that it was about us being a great partner to the industry and sharing our insights and resources to help our customers better understand consumer need states and with that knowledge develop ways to grow their business.

So after a lot of thoughtful consideration the NRA approved our request and we had a packed house in Chicago for our session. The buzz and the positive ramifications from our session were significant; I would say about a third of the traffic at our booth that afternoon were people who wanted to talk to our speakers or get more information about this research study. That may not seem amazing, but the whole notion of getting off the show floor and getting into the education sessions with relevant content that engages an audience of our customers or prospective customers is probably the most significant thing we’re doing right now, and we’re having a lot of success with this strategy.

We are also starting to have direct, more thoughtful conversations with the publishing companies that we buy advertising from, and not just a quick discussion once a year. I feel that if you’re having an ongoing dialog throughout the year and sharing what you’re trying to do strategically, that’s going to push your media partners to really think about the value add that they can bring to us. If they understand what we’re trying to achieve, they’re going to bring us better ideas and opportunities, so that when we have our annual meeting to finalize our media plans, it should be a culmination of a discussion and not just a pitch for pages and banner ads.

That’s the message I’ve been delivering to the folks that we buy media from and our ad agency: we need to operate more as a team. And the publications understand they’ve got to bring more to the table. They realize the game is changing and they’re looking at ways to push out content and create value for their subscribers and readers with elements, such as webinars, e-newsletter, conferences, etc.  And we are very much aligned because we are ultimately trying to engage the same audience – their readers are our customers.

Before we conclude are there any other trends or issues that you’d like to address?

My only other thought is that the area of industry communications is a journey, and we are living in very fluid, fast changing times right now, with the incredible number of outlets available to get information from and of course the proliferation of social and mobile media. But two things that have not changed are that 1) this is still a relationship-based business, and 2) perception is paramount.  Business people want to partner with manufacturers and suppliers that understand their needs and can bring real value to help them grow their business and build their brands.  For me it comes back to the question of “Who’s the target? What messages are you trying to convey to them?  How do you deliver those messages in a way that willbe meaningful?”

One last thing is that regardless of the organization you work for, your B2B communications is going to be inextricably linked to your brand in some form or fashion. In our case, because many of our customers are also consumers, there’s a look and a feel to what people expect from Coca-Cola communications that guides what we do. It has to be linked. It has to have the right look, feel and tone, because our brand has a special personality and connection to consumers, and how you bring it to life to our customers is just as important as how you bring it to life to our consumers.  And we need to remember that “everything communicates.”

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BIOS:

Ira Gleser
Ira Gleser is an accomplished marketing communications professional with a proven track record of building and activating brands using all elements of marketing communications to connect them to B2B and B2C audiences in an engaging, meaningful way.  He possesses a broad perspective gained from working on both the agency and client side, as well as running an event management firm and his own successful marketing consulting practice.

In his current role as Vice President, Industry Communications at Coca-Cola Refreshments, Ira leads the planning, creation, and execution of B2B communications programs, campaigns and engagement initiatives supporting the Company’s partnerships and presence in the retail and foodservice/on-premise industries.  In addition to his over fifteen years at Coca-Cola serving in a variety of marketing and customer management roles, Ira has worked with a number of industry leaders over the course of his career including Marriott Hotels, Charles Schwab, MGM Mirage, Tyson Foods, Burger King, Newell Rubbermaid and Lowe’s.

He received his Bachelor of Business Administration degree in Economics from the University of Georgia, and his MBA in Marketing from George Washington University in Washington, D.C.

Gene Gsell
Gene Gsell leads the comprehensive business and strategic operations of the U.S. Retail & Manufacturing business unit within the Americas division of SAS, the leader in business analytics software and services, and the largest independent vendor in the business intelligence market. Gene brings 25 years of sales and marketing experience to the general manager position, with expertise in e-commerce strategy, profit-growth management, product line introductions and extensions, channel development, business restructuring and licensing.

In 2003, SAS acquired Marketmax, a leading provider of advanced retail planning and merchandise intelligence solutions. As a result of this acquisition, Gene moved from his role as Marketmax’s chief marketing and sales officer and was named general manager of the newly formed retail/CPG vertical at SAS.

Since its inception, SAS’ retail/CPG vertical has been the fastest-growing business within the company. Leading analysts like Gartner and AMR have termed SAS’ vision for retail “industry leading.” Under Gene’s leadership, SAS has formed strategic partnerships with many well-known retailers, including The Home Depot, Kohl’s and Sears, and manufacturers, including Ford Motor Company, Whirlpool and American Honda.

In 2009, the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) offered Gene a position on the Manufacturing Board of Directors.  He is pleased to represent SAS in this capacity, reinforcing SAS’ commitment in the manufacturing industry.

Prior to working at SAS and Marketmax, Gene served in diverse roles at several retail and wholesale companies, including Danskin, The Timberland Company, Hanes Hosiery and Federated Department Stores.

Before joining Marketmax, Gene was president of Danskin, where he drove the evolution of the company’s identity as a supplier of traditional dance and active wear to a merchant of sports-specific performance activewear and casual lifestyle activewear. As a part of this effort, Gene oversaw a significant expansion in Danskin’s casual sportswear and the launch of the Zen activewear collection.

Previous to Danskin, Gene was the vice president of North American wholesale at The Timberland Company. In this role, he re-established the growth of the Timberland brand in the marketplace through channel rationalization and sales expansion. The sales expansion was achieved through the successful launch of Timberland’s children’s business and the alignment of channel-specific sales and product strategies.

As the vice president of sales and business development at Hanes Hosiery, a division of Sara Lee Corporation, Gene directed the successful launch of the Donna Karan hosiery line as well as a landmark partnership between Hanes Hosiery and Victoria’s Secret, which produced an exclusive and first-ever Victoria’s Secret hosiery line.

Gene began his career in retail at Stern’s, a division of Federated Department Stores, where he served in numerous roles in store operations and merchandising. Within merchandising, he was responsible for the buying of men's dress furnishings.

Gene received a bachelor’s degree in economics from Ohio Wesleyan University.