The Big Interview: Colm O'Dwyer, Coca-Cola Enterprises

Related tags Soft drinks Coca-cola Coca-cola enterprises

Light relief: Colm O’Dwyer wants to inject some fun into the soft-drinks scene
Light relief: Colm O’Dwyer wants to inject some fun into the soft-drinks scene
An industry made up of lots of independent retailers tied in to buying their main products from big companies, and many of them struggling to cope with change and going out of business. It’s surprising that parallels are not drawn more often between petrol stations a couple of decades ago and the pub industry today.

But Colm O’Dwyer certainly isn’t going to miss that trick. Twenty years ago the man now in charge of Coca-Cola Enterprises’ relationship with the pub trade began his career with Esso.

“I was dealing with entrepreneurs running their own businesses, trying to get them to focus on driving shop sales, where they could make more money,” he remembers.

“It was fascinating. Sometimes the people weren’t cut out for it. I could see it in the P&Ls. There were some unpleasant experiences, some ups and downs.

“Half those independents have closed. They made all their money from petrol and didn’t see that they needed to develop a shop business. That has parallels with the pub trade. Ask yourself, is the future of the pub in wet-led sales?”

O’Dwyer believes that soft drinks must play their part in that future, encouraging people “to reconsider the pub”. Like all his predecessors he naturally thinks licensees under-estimate the value of soft drinks to their business.

But he also believes that CCE is doing more to help, more to make the millions spent on marketing soft-drinks brands come alive at
the bar.

There’s something different about the amiable Irishman, and it’s not just that he’s a foot taller than everyone else in the room.

It was while he was at Esso he realised that his career lay in fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG), and “Coca-Cola Enterprises attracted me more than the others”.

“My dad had always called it ‘American Champagne’, it was his black stuff. And it’s a good firm. There’s a lot of socialising and energy. You have more autonomy to work on brands, the freedom to get on and do things.

“The people are good fun, too. I don’t think I’d have stayed with them just for the brands.”

By the turn of the century he was sales manager for off-licences, and, in an environment wracked by mergers and rationalisations, turned 10 years of decline for CCE into profit.

Following that success he was given a couple of supermarkets to look after, an experience you suspect he didn’t enjoy so well. “They are vast, promotions-driven businesses and soft drinks was not a core destination category for them.”

They were, perhaps, resistant to O’Dwyer’s softer, more strategic inclinations, which he was able to pursue in centralised planning roles at the company before landing the ‘out-of-home’ channel.

It’s a market he’s experienced at the sharp end. At the age of 21, as president of Strathclyde University, he was in charge of six pubs on the campus. They were losing money — before he turned them round. “That was scary. But it was an interesting introduction to business,” he says.

“I find the on-trade very open and gregarious, and I enjoy that. It’s also less tactical than the off-trade. You can have more strategic discussions with people.

“The channel could be selling a lot more soft drinks, though. Some pubs do it really well, but there’s room for a slice of the market to do it better.

“The soft-drinks category plays second fiddle to alcohol in the pub, but soft drinks are very profitable. If they are 10% of sales they’ll generate 20% of profits.

“A fifth of a pub’s sales might be soft drinks, and that’s pretty meaty. They are consumed with food, and in wet-led pubs they are important as a mixer. Give soft drinks more attention and care and they can help get the right people to dwell longer in the pub. But they play a recessive role at the moment, and our job is to bring them to the front.”

O’Dwyer’s distinctive contribution to that is the idea of “bringing marketing to life”. It’s something you should see plenty of during Coca-Cola’s London 2012 Olympic Games programme, and in various initiatives tailored to suit the needs of pub operators.

He cites the recent sampling at train stations, designed to drive customers into Greene King pubs.

“It’s not something that’s been done before. It’s answering the question of how you make marketing mean something for British pubs.

“I’m not sure we’ve always been great at talking to the licensed channel,” he says. “Listening to what people want is massively important.

“We have got to be sure that we not only have a listing, but that it’s activated. We want to drive footfall in pubs, attract new people to them.

“Equity is more important for pubs than it is for Tesco or Sainsbury’s,” he goes on. “You’ve got to show it’s worth paying the premium for a soft drink, and you’ve got to do that before people get to the bar.”

O’Dwyer is still feeling uncomfortable about an orange juice he bought at a pub he visited earlier. It was a good enough orange juice, but no branding was evident and, like a lot of customers do, he stared hard at his change.

“£2.70 seems a lot to me,” he points out. “I would have liked to have known how much I was going to pay, I think.”

It is, of course, a matter of value, not price, and O’Dwyer believes that “people will gravitate to the big brands”. He also believes that “they are prepared to pay for them”.

“But if we’re really honest, do people understand what they’re getting — is it what they paid for?”

He’s a fan of the clarity of the JD Wetherspoon soft-drinks fixture, and the principle of letting customers know what your offer is before they get to the bar has been a core teaching in the CCE mentor programme that ran in the Publican’s Morning Advertiser​.

“If you activate soft drinks in the way you activate premium beers, you can grow sales a lot. There is evidence you can get a 9% sales increase simply through putting them on the menu.

“It can also encourage licensees themselves to think differently about soft drinks, about what a compelling offer might be.”

Quality of the serve is another driver of value. “And a well-served Coke is good for the brand, too,” he declares.

Last year CCE launched a Cask Marque-style accreditation scheme called ACE. Pubs are continually assessed on the perfect serve and the successful ones get to display a plaque behind the bar.

“It takes it a step further,” says O’Dwyer. “Sometimes you can be complacent,” he adds. “We’re trying to do things differently, to do everything in a thorough way and have a good interaction with pubs so we can develop a sustainable relationship — because they can always go to somebody else for their soft drinks.

“We’ll do more tailored programmes, get more involved in trade organisations. I want to add fun and sizzle to soft drinks. It can get too serious at times, and I think we can add some light relief.

“I would like to be the person to take Coca-Cola Enterprises’ share of the on-trade market to number one — and I don’t think that’s
being too arrogant. If we can deliver more profit for people, it’s a reasonable aim.”

My kind of pub
Meeting place: the Star & Anchor pub in Ealing, west London

“I don’t get to the pub very much. I’ve got four kids. But when I do go out, a pub like the Star & Anchor in Ealing, west London, is somewhere you can have a nice drink, meet people, socialise and enjoy a little bit of music.

“I like to see an eclectic mix of people in a pub, and I want to be welcomed. The service element is becoming more and more important for pubs.”

Key dates

Becomes president of Strathclyde University, with responsibility for six on-site pubs

Joins Esso as area manager and buyer

Gets a job with Coca-Cola Enterprises (CCE) in shopper marketing

Takes a role developing sales at petrol stations

Sales manager for off-licences and forecourts

Responsibility for supermarket giants Sainsbury’s and Waitrose

Returns to shopper marketing, working with all CCE grocery customers

Joins revenue growth management team

Forms new strategic planning team

Appointed revenue growth management director

Becomes sales and customer development director for the out-of-home channel

Related topics Soft & Hot Drinks

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