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New Coke, same formula for engagement

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This post is by SmartBrief contributing editor Robert Jones, reporting from the 5th Annual Internal Branding & Employee Engagement conference.

The world’s favorite soft drink may be 125 years old, but the company behind the iconic brand is barely even a toddler. One year ago today, the Coca-Cola Co. announced it would buy its leading bottler, Coca-Cola Enterprises, to create Coca-Cola Refreshments, the largest supply chain operation in the world.

For Laura Miller, chief human resources officer of the combined company, the challenge of the merger was “leveraging the power of brand love with employees while going through historic change.” The merger process would create at least six months of stress and uncertainty, with analysts watching closely for any signs of disarray or mismanagement.

For consumers, Coke’s mission was to “Refresh the world and inspire moments of optimism and happiness.” Miller says her own mission was “to inspire optimism and happiness internally,” at a time when the company was adding 62,000 new employees in 600 locations.

After conducting internal surveys and cultural assessments, Coke settled on a three-pronged strategy for promoting employee engagement during the transition:

  • Leadership. Senior leaders from both companies hit the road, seeking to “articulate a future vision for Coca-Cola Refreshments” — and why that mattered to rank-and-file employees. When employees told leaders they wanted constant communication during the process, the company responded with a variety of communication channels, including road shows, daily “huddles,” leadership blogs, an employee portal, mobile messaging and digital signage in every plant.
  • Learning and development. “This often slows down during times of change and uncertainty,” but Miller says she “wanted people to see that the company was still investing in employees even during the big change.” Besides reaffirming its commitment to training programs, Coke focused on rewards and recognition, launching “Sharing Happiness” celebrations at all 600 North American locations.
  • Corporate citizenship. While acknowledging that the merger would create changes, Coke stressed that its five pillars of corporate citizenship — product portfolio, energy conservation, diversity and inclusion, water stewardship and sustainable packaging — would remain constant.

Throughout the process, leadership constantly reinforced that the top priority for employees must be to stay focused on delivering great results, helping to allay Wall Street fears that the merger would damage one of the world’s best-known brands. The merger closed on Oct. 2, 2010, and when fourth-quarter earnings were announced, one prominent analyst proclaimed that Coke had “crushed it.”

Though such reviews were rewarding, Miller says the emotional payoff came when the first case bottled by the “new” Coke rolled off a production line in Atlanta. With top management on hand and live feeds to all 600 locations, Coke’s CEO hoisted the case over his head. “How engaged were employees?” Miller asks. “Everyone was cheering, and we heard reports of tears in some places. It was just a great moment for us.”