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Volume 22 No. 3
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Forum: A marketing talk with Coca-Cola’s Geoff Cottrill

The role of the marketer is to represent the consumer in every single interaction.” The direct statement struck me for its simplicity. It was said by Coca-Cola’s Geoff Cottrill at our recent Octagon Sports Marketing Symposium, when I asked him what’s the role of a chief marketer. I am always fascinated by people who hold the CMO position. Many occupy rarefied air, have outsized personalities, and are given the freedom to push the envelope to differentiate their brands. Yet, they are faced with lofty, sometimes unattainable expectations. Not surprisingly, many high-profile CMOs — whose campaigns don’t lead to an uptick in sales — experience a short stint in their roles.


The goal of the discussion was to get insight from Cottrill, a longtime marketer who worked at such successful brands as Starbucks and Nike’s Converse and has had two stints at Coca-Cola. He was one of the most popular speakers at the event and I found his point of view worth sharing for its honesty.


While mostly on the brand side, he spent a short time on the agency side, and I asked him what role an agency should play. “Trusted partner and a speaker of truth,” he said. “We pay our agencies to tell us the truth and we don’t pay our agencies to tell us what we’re already telling ourselves.”


He then elaborated on the role of the marketer. “Represent the consumer in every single interaction inside and outside the company. When I sat at the executive table at Converse, I would always leave an empty chair at the table. And at the end of meetings I would say to the team, ‘Listen, if our consumer was sitting there and they heard everything that we said, everything we talked about, how we talked to each other, how little we talked about them, do you think they’d ever buy anything from us again?’ You must be conscious of the consumer when you’re making decisions about what you’re trying to do for the brand.”


He knows exactly how he wants to leverage his sponsorship portfolio. “As a brand, I want to be able to connect with, and add some level of value, to a consumer. If a brand shows up at [a sports and entertainment event], it needs to add value, it needs to understand why the person came, what they’re there to enjoy and how the brand can enhance it, not interrupt it.”


He also believes brand-side marketers need to step up their game. “Marketers have to be smarter about what it is you’re trying to say and when you’re trying to say it. We need to understand as marketers that consumers don’t wake up every morning and think about us. They don’t get up and stretch in bed and say, ‘Oh, man, I hope Sprite has a new video on YouTube.’ … If you walk in the office with the understanding that people really don’t care about your brand, but you’ve got to care about them first before they’re going to care about you, you’re going to have a very different mindset and you’re going to do very different things. One of the things that we all need to do is super basic — step back and reset, and think that our job as a marketer is to identify and understand who our core consumer is. And then our job is to serve them. Serve them through products, serve them through experiences, serve them in any way that makes sense for them.”


Not mincing words, he added, “I would challenge all of us that we don’t do a very good job in general as an industry of serving our consumers. We serve our own needs first and then we wonder why we don’t get the results we desire. Serving consumers with that mindset is what needs to change.”


He outlined the strategy he will bring to Coca-Cola’s sponsorship. “We’re going to spend our money where our consumers are, and in a way that is going to connect to them in a meaningful way. If we’re sponsoring something that is not meaningful to consumers, then we’re going to have a hard conversation about whether or not we do that. … We will look at not continuing to sponsor things that aren’t productive. We’re also keeping a close eye on the stuff that Anheuser-Busch started with variable pricing on deals. That’s something we’re very interested in doing and I think something you’ll see us start to do moving forward.”


Cottrill is studying placing performance criteria in the company’s deals. “We want our asset partners to succeed. We want them to sell out their stadiums. We want them to be relevant with consumers. No question. But if they’re not, we also don’t want to be held accountable for paying huge prices for something that we didn’t get that value from. I don’t think that’s fair.”


He signed off with another direct statement rooted in simplicity that all properties should hear: “It’s all about relevance,” he said. “It’s all about consumer connections. And if it makes sense, we’re in. If it doesn’t, we’re not.”



Abraham Madkour can be reached at