TEDxChange: What Global Health Advocates Can Learn From Coca-Cola?

Waking up earlier than usual today paid off. I was part of the TEDxChange talk, where most of the discussion went around how to apply lessons from the business world into global health and the fight against poverty. For folks like me, folks that have spend years in the for-profit massive consumption industry, and that at the same time feel passionate about having a positive impact in developing nations, this conference brought a lot of “food for thought”.

Melinda Gates started her talk referring to the world-class for-profit company Coca-Cola as an example of a model that works in developing nations. Coca-Cola is in every country in the world. Melinda’s teaser question was, if you can find Coca-Cola in every developing country, why not condoms and vaccines? Then, what can we learn from Coca-Cola’s business model to improve quality of life?

These are the Coca-Cola lessons I extracted from Melinda Gates’ talk and my personal takeaways on those lessons:

Coke lesson 1: Measure and use real time data.

Yes, this is the ultimate business truth: you get what you measure. And chances to succeed are even higher if you measure as you go. Tracking is learning and learning is the only way to make sure you are on the path to success. Tracking, scorecards, color coding and KPI are all associate to the corporate world where you measure things such as market share, penetration, sales, etc. Let’s put it this way, if for Coca-Cola it is so vital to measure their how many more bottles of Coke they sold today vs. last month; isn’t it even more important to measure how many less kids died today due to malaria vs. last month? Now, can you spell out the KPIs of your organization?

Coke lesson #2: leverage on local entrepreneurial talent.

Very frequently I hear the saying “think globally, act locally”. I invite both for-profits and non-profits to go the extra mile: Become local. Especially in the global health field, many of the causes of illness and death are related to local habits. Those habits do not come obvious in focus groups or one-day guided field trips. Give yourself the chance to live under your target’s reality, insights will come naturally.

Coke lesson #3: Marketing. People want a Coca-Cola. It’s aspirational. They associate the brand to the kind of life they want.

So why can Coca-Cola achieve such great distribution in countries where drinking soda is not necessarily a priority? Why can’t we achieve the same distribution for vaccines, condoms, books, water purification kits, etc.? For any company, distribution plans are costly, especially in remote rural areas. You can invest millions in ‘pushing’ your products to be on the shelf. However, what I call “sustainable distribution” only happens when your product or brand is addressing a consumer unmet need, when people want your product. Question now is, do people in developing countries want condoms, vaccines and books as much as they want Coke? How can we make people want all this things? How do condoms, vaccines and books stand for ‘better life’? Not only in people’s mind but also hearts. Coca-Cola purchase drivers are not in people’s minds, they are in people’s hearts. As we used to say in P&G Beauty Care: “we don’t want to be in the business of I NEED, we want to be in the business of I WANT”.

Melinda Gates finished her inspiring presentation by sharing her vision of happiness, she said: “My vision of happiness is a mother holding a healthy baby in her arms”. My vision of happiness is to live in a world where every person feels they have a contribution to make and goes for it. My vision of happiness is that we all feel responsible for building a world where opportunities are equal for everyone, where your destiny is not determined by the place you are born.

Toni Del Rio

TEDxChange recorded webcast: