#shareacoke with Mohamed Akeel
BY ANAAM IKRAM
Coca-Cola is recognisable worldwide, coming a long way since starting in 1886. For it’s asthetics, Coca-Cola has collaborated with famous fashion houses such as Jean Paul Gautier and Karl Lagerfeld.
Introducing the “Share A Coke” campaign in Bahrain, the international drink company is connecting with its customers on a more personal level by emblazoning their names on the 355ml cans. Perle Magazine sat down with Managing Director of Coca-Cola Bahrain and Qatar, Mohamed Akeel, who presented the team with the first ever personalised cans in Bahrain and spoke about his 18-year journey with the Coca-Cola Company.
Could you tell us a little about yourself?
I am from India and I have been in the Coca-Cola system for 18 years. I grew up and studied in India and worked there before moving to Bahrain in November 2012. Bahrain is my first international assignment but I have had short-term assignments in countries such as Vietnam and Malaysia.
How did the opportunity to work with Coca-Cola arise?
I started my career in India in 1988, while I was in my second year of college. I was working for a direct-selling company, selling vacuum cleaners door-to-door. I did that for seven years and moved around nine different locations within India. I met a friend in Patna (in the Eastern region of India) who was working for Coca-Cola and recommended me to them. I wasn’t very confident about my chances of joining Coca-Cola, since in those days Coca-Cola in India only employed people from the Ahmedabad branch of the Indian Institute of Management. I met them anyway and had around 6-7 interviews after which I got the job. So, in 1997 I started working in Coca-Cola as the Head of Franchise, heading the city of Chennai.
What has your experience been like working for Coca-Cola for 18 years now?
I think working in a global company, especially one that is very close to the consumer, has been very enriching. One of the things that I like about our company is that we are very socially responsible.
We encourage our employees to act like owners of the brand. I always say if you want to work for The Coca-Cola Company, then you should not join us. If you want to own the brand, then you should join us. You have to be a part of the brand.
What would you describe your leadership style as?
I am responsible for a team of people, so it is important for me to raise the bar even higher. I deal with many difficult issues, and I need to balance being likeable and being respected. It definitely takes some practice to strike a balance. I am more of a coach and I like to delegate my work and have a very strong review mechanism.
My job is to instill positive energy and I do my best to keep the energy levels high. I inject a lot of humour into my everyday work life especially at management meetings. This helps keep productivity levels high and morale even higher. I also publicly acknowledge and reward achievements and hard work, and that, I believe, is a great motivator.
My business and its employees are a reflection of myself and so if I make ‘honest and ethical behaviour’ a key value, my team will follow suit. I encourage a healthy interoffice lifestyle and by emphasising these standards and living them. I hopefully influence the office environment into a friendly and helpful place.
I also need to show trust – if you do not trust your team with the company vision, you might never progress to the next stage.
In terms of your team, what are some of the strong qualities that you look for?
The first thing I look for is a strong sense of professionalism, and they should easily integrate, which I think is highly important. As I said we operate in 200+ countries and if you do not have an integrating attitude, it can be very difficult. Also you should be passionate about your work. These are the things, which I look for in people.
As a Managing Director of Coca-Cola Bahrain and Qatar, you witness two different markets and tastes, how do you manage the variances between them?
The two different markets do not matter, what matters is the consumers. I think the job of a Coca-Cola employee, whether it is I or anybody else, is to ensure we remain on top of the business to give consumers a chilled Coke at arm’s length. That is the most important thing for us. We want to be sure we are matching the expectation of the consumers, whether that is in Bahrain or Qatar. I do not see any difference. The good news is that we have a balanced portfolio and we have a variety of brands, flavours and packs. Our whole approach is how we reach every consumer on the spectrum, be it a high-end consumer or a low-end consumer, and that is both in Bahrain and Qatar. Our technique is to give them what they like and to ensure that we are there according to their needs.
Speaking of Qatar, is it correct that Coca-Cola will be opening a bottling plant there soon?
That is correct, we are setting up a new plant in Qatar as we like to invest to markets based on their growth opportunities and we see it there. Hopefully by July, the plant will be up and running.
We heard about Coca-Cola’s scheme that paid for excess baggage on Dubai airport, how did that idea come about?
We have done many things as such. One of the things we want is to “wow” our consumers. We want to be a part of their daily life. Last year we launched the “Open Happiness” campaign in Dubai, which was when a 500ml Coke bottle was bought, the cap could be put into a booth and people could talk to their family for 3 minutes, at no charge. The video made for this campaign has around 2million hits on YouTube. We always do things like this, firstly because we are a commercial company and secondly we are a company, that interacts and cares for its consumers. That is where the whole idea of such campaigns comes from.
What about some of Coca-Cola’s other campaigns?
We recently launched a campaign in Dubai called “wish-a-coke” which was all about asking the consumers what their biggest wishes were. We wrote down the major ones such as flight tickets, laptops and there was a YouTube video I saw of a man in India who wanted to educate his daughters, and we made that possible. Watching that I had tears in my eyes. There were other people who wanted to speak their loved ones in a village and our team took an iPad to the village to enable them to communicate. Our team went to Pakistan and built a school there as well.
There are many things we have done as such through our campaigns, not just this one, and this is part of the company culture.
Could you please tell us more about the latest “share a coke” campaign that is creating a lot of buzz?
It started in 2012, from Australia, and I think it takes us to the next level of communication with our customers. The moment of happiness that I saw, when I gave the Perle Team the personalised cans cannot have a monetary value placed on it. It is priceless. It is a very simple approach, if you look at it, but it brings cheer and makes people smile, to have their own personalised can. It was quite successful as soon as it launched and now we have it here in Bahrain. This is a people thing where it spreads from one person to another. Now you have these cans and you will tell your friends and family about it and then they will want it and so on. I personally believe it is a simple thing but it adds a lot of value.
How can a customer get a can with their name on it?
There are two ways to do that: one is that we have 150 names in the market, which are common to the local market. Secondly, if your name is not available on those cans, customers can go to a Coca-Cola promotional desk and ask them to create a label on the spot. Alternatively, they can even email their names to us and we will delivered the personalized can to the owner. There are 1.2 million people in Bahrain; everybody should have a personalised can.
What are some of the future plans of Coca-Cola in Bahrain?
The new “share a coke” campaign is a big one and once that is over, we will start the Ramadan campaign, which is also huge for us. We also do Coke Studio, and will be activating it for a third time in the GCC region.
What are some key points of advice you would like to give to youngsters starting their careers now?
I think they are so lucky; they have the world in their palms. The only thing I would advise them is to follow their dreams and be passionate about it. One thing I see today in the youths is that they have their ears and eyes open, and unlike us when we were growing up with very little options and information was not so readily available. The youngsters today are so blessed to have so much information. My advice for them is to live their dreams.
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