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Monday, June 18, 2007

‘We are not bothered about controversies’- Kini

Venkatesh Kini, VP- marketing, Coca-Cola India loves cars and is a serious travel buff. At 44, Kini is the father of two and loves playing tennis and squash. Ask him about his favourite author and pat comes the reply-Thomas Friedman. An IIM Ahmedabad graduate Kini joined The Coca-Cola Company in India in 1998 as the senior brand manager for the Lemon Lime Category, where he was instrumental in the successful launch of Sprite. In October 1999, Venkatesh accepted the role of global brand manager in Atlanta working on new products.

He has over 17 years of marketing, sales & general management experience. His last assignment was as VP, Sprite and Flavours Brand Business Unit in Coca-Cola North America, which he held since September 2005. During that time, he led the development of breakthrough advertising and graphics redesign for the Sprite relaunch. He also led the successful national rollout of Vault and the business plan for Sprite and Flavours for 2007.

Managing a cola brand, especially in India, is a tough job. How do you deal with the challenges?

We market a great product, and it is unfortunate that some well meaning but misinformed people target us. If you ask me whether we would want controversies, I would say no. And if you ask me if we are bothered about controversies, I would say no to that as well.

But according to reports, Coke is not doing well here. Why aren’t people drinking it in India?

(Smiles). According to our numbers, Coke is doing well. I assure you that there has been growth though we can’t divulge the numbers yet. In fact, compared to 2004-2005 there has been a strategic shift in 2006-07, wherein Coca-Cola India has stepped up its investments into the cola category. Instore marketing is also a big feature in our plans for the year.

Instilling brand loyalty in consumers is a tough job for cola companies since it’s an impulse buy. How do you plan to do that for your brands?

In India the task is not creating brand loyalty at present. Loyalty is necessary but not sufficient. India has the lowest per capita consumption in the world. So the need of the hour is to expand the packaged ready-to-drink beverage market. Innovative instore marketing incites the consumer to opt for our brands

Minutemaid Pulpy Orange is touted to be a huge success for your company. Is there anything new that you are planning to do with the brand?

Yes, Minutemaid Pulpy Orange has been a huge success for us. In fact, before launching it here we had identified a gap in the market. There was no ready to drink beverage that was light and at the same time, had fruit pulp in it. Even our ad campaigns that said, ‘Where is the pulp’ emphasised the fact. Maaza was there but people drank it more for taste than refreshment. So, our unique packaging of 400 ml and price clicked well with consumers. After the South we have turned our attention to the North now, and only recently the brand was launched in Ludhiana. And Haryana and Himachal Pradesh will follow.

If it is doing so well then why are you going so slow with the launches?

We have understood the value of focussing on a particular market. The launches are a result of a phased roll out. We study the behaviour of a particular market. Even in China where it was launched before India, you will still not find the brand available all across the country. And there is also a very interesting trend that we noticed after launching Minutemaid Pulpy Orange in the South. The sales of Maaza rose with the sales of Minutemaid Pulpy Orange! That’s a classic example of one brand expanding the market and another benefiting from it.

A few days ago Coca-Cola COO Muhtar Kent said that he was hoping that India emerge as the third largest market for Coke in the long term? How is Coca Cola going to achieve it?

India is already the world’s third largest beverage market in volumes. Transformation is happening rapidly with Indians adopting global trends and the economy growing. And like I said earlier, we are trying to expand the market.

Coca Cola’s Georgia brand has not done well when you pushed it as a mass offering. What’s the strategy now?

We are pushing Georgia Gold as a premium offering by tying up with retailers like McDonalds and others. Its retail price will be decided according to the retail ambience in which it will be served. Other than one or two existing brands, this concept is new in India. So market creation will take some time.

What is the biggest challenge you faced in your career?

When for the first time I left the country for Atlanta I faced a culture shock. I realised that I couldn’t apply what I had learnt in India. The market was different in every way. But what held me in good stead are the various diverse cultures existing in India itself.

Tell us something about your life in the IIM.

It was long back but it was the first time I was exposed to the world of business. The people I met were amazing. And if given a chance, I would go through the two years of grilling again.

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