Rodolfo Echeverria became VP of marketing for Coca-Cola Latin America at the start of this year, after his his predecessor Javier Sanchez Lamelas shifted to a similar role in Europe. 

A 25-year veteran of the iconic beverage brand, Echeverria knows Coca-Cola inside out, having held numerous marketing roles across South America, North America and Europe.

Echeverria sat down with the Holmes Report at the Cannes Lions 2013 Festival to discuss how Coca-Cola is responding to fundamental changes in its marketing model, using public relations in a more cohesive manner to develop a consumer-driven content approach. 

Echeverria pointed in particular to three initiatives from his region: video channel, radio station, and 'Project Wired' which aims to provide WiFi access at every point of sale in Latin America.

These efforts, notes Echeverria, require a much more nimble, "on-demand" approach to marketing and customer service. In the conversation below, he discusses the risks and opportunies associated with the changes in Coca-Cola's marketing mentality.

How is Coca-Cola managing the change from traditional marketing to a process that has much more consumer involvement?

I guess that everybody is concerned about the speed about that change. If we had sufficient time to react it would not be a problem. One element is multiple screens versus one to two primary screens. That is making everybody nervous. The additional screens are more difficult to deal with. We learned how to deal with TV and then desktop. Now we are trying to do the same thing in the little screen of mobile.

Of most concern is what happens in the minds of consumers - the era of on-demand marketing. The old times where we decided when do I put my ad, when do I want to connect, is flipping the power completely to the consumer. This on-demand element requires us to be very fast, very realtime, very interactive.

The [other] thing is our internal consumer interaction center (CIC). We used to get calls from consumers and respond. That’s so old-school. Now we are reinforcing our consumer interaction centre by recruiting experts in the social and interactive business. We are now more ready for a 360-degree conversation in realtime.

Yes, the mediums are changing dramatically. But, when we talk about the work that resonates from our consumers, everything boils down to an insight - we transfer that to a big idea and that big idea just transforms to storytelling to a lot of content. I don’t think that flow will change. It’s still the power of making those stories emotional, deep or making people laugh.

We seem to be moving from an era of 'brand ego', to one where companies have lost control over how their consumers define their brand. How difficult is that shift?

Every single brand probably says they have the right to decide - 'we don’t need to satisfy the need on your terms because I am the brand owner'. Think about Coca-Cola. We are everywhere, so we might think we don’t need to adjust to the consumer’s terms. Well, guess what, if you think that, think again.

All those millions and millions of points of sale may not be enough. A consumer may want to demand from the living room in his house or as he walks down the street. Yes, it’s humbling. We have to realise that all our efforts might not be enough. There might be a group of consumers that might still be stubbornly expecting us to cater to them. They may expect a personalised Coca-Cola can in the shape they want. You may think those consumers are young people, but anytime soon it could be everybody. This is an infectious process from the youth upwards.

How exactly are you actually bringing the consumer point of view into your marketing process?

We have really made big steps on that. 15 years ago, we were all about: 'I have a message and this is it - we measured comprehension and little else.' Then we did a little step forward and we started telling stories. And we felt so good. There was the Happiness Machine. But a lot of people were still discontented. It’s a story but it’s a story about us. We’re telling people that Coca-Cola is so fantastic that when you reach for a Coke you get all these other things.

Now, in Latin America we are telling the people's stories. We just took security cameras and made them capture what they are seeing. We wanted to tell the world how many nice people there are and how many good deeds happen every day. We got them to capture the good.

We are consumer-sourcing not only ideas, but also the content. Through Crazy for Good, we are pointing out people we found, who perform random acts of kindness ('RAKs'). These ’RAKs', we started grouping them. We are calling on our consumers to tell us about heroes you know who do simple RAKs. Conventional crowdsroucing is people giving the brief to 100 kids - we’re doing that as well. But what we’re doing is a very respectful way of doing comms.

Coca-Cola recently revamped its digital presence via the Journey content platform. Is that coming to Latin America soon?

It will go global, so the answer is yes. We see a slower pace of adoption of those ideas compared to Europe.

Why is that?

It’s technology, how wealth spreads in Latin America. We are slightly behind but, by no means are we not part of that. Brazil is growing its middle class - they are adopting the lifestyle of the higher class. That trend will be an enabler of Latin America catching up with the rest of the world.

When you are opening up more to people, there are some risks, particularly for big brands. How do you prepare for these risks?

One of the things we have committed ourselves to is that whenever we embrace something in unknown territory, we will acknowledge the risks and declare the learning. Rather than being successful from scratch - learning is an objective per se. It is part of our mantra in every innovation right now.

We love when some of our nice content gets replicated one million times. But, you live by the sword, you die by the sword. We are dealing with that with our integrated consumer response system. There is an internal path of approval for certain issues and certain subjects. We are very clear they should be handled by higher authorities. With the proper approval of senior management we may respond in realtime. We have to make sure we are as fast as we can. [But] you’re right, we are vulnerable.

Coca-Cola works extensively with PR firms in other regions on its marketing and content-creation activities. Is that happening in Latin America?

This is one of the transformations we are willing to make. We were using PR to respond to the authorities and regulators, and using it as a defensive force for the tough matters. And we were using it, but less so, to market our brands. We will step up the second side and use more earned media by integrating it more into the business and making it part of the 360-degree communications programmes. We are in the process, but we are accelerating that.

Is the Latin American PR industry read for that kind of shift on the part of big brands?

When I look back at the very many countries I’ve worked, some of those countries were not ready at all. It was a struggle. I think in big countries - Argentina, Brazil, Mexico - it is happening. I think everybody will get there.

One thing that will accelerate that process  is for every company to convince themself that the most valuable asset you have is your image. The biggest opportunity you have is building your image and the biggest risk is hurting that image. The need creates the service or product. If more companies are demanding this, then agencies will come up and blossom.

I guess more companies are not convinced by this. I guess they are thinking more about protecting their tangible assets. Our most important asset is the image of the Coca-Cola brand. The most valuable brand in the world. The most valuable asset we have is an intangible. In the era of digital/social when the good and bad spreads by millions - you better have your reputation in place.