ATLANTA – Consumers, not companies, are driving today’s most disruptive innovations, a distinguished executive panel said during a Sept. 28 discussion at Georgia Tech’s Scheller College of Business. Moderator Walter Isaacson, CEO of The Aspen Institute, was joined onstage by Coca-Cola Chairman and CEO Muhtar Kent, Home Depot CEO Craig Menaer, BuzzFeed Founder and CEO Jonah Peretti, and BuzzFeed President Greg Coleman, who shared their respective thoughts on innovation, leadership and more.

Here are excerpts from Kent’s comments, edited for length and clarity:

On how Coca-Cola, which turned 130 in May, decides when, where and how to innovate

You don't decide; the consumer decides. You have to follow the consumer passionately... Innovation starts and ends with the consumer. We think of innovation in terms of marketing, we think about it in terms of products, we think about it in terms of packaging, in terms of equipment, and in terms of processes.

From left: Greg Coleman, president, BuzzFeed; Craig Menaer, CEO, The Home Depot; Jonah Peretti, founder and CEO, BuzzFeed; Muhtar Kent, chairman and CEO, The Coca-Cola Company; and Walter Isaacson, CEO of The Aspen Institute.


On the importance of listening to and engaging with consumers

You have to pay attention to what they're saying and make sure that you follow that trend because every individual in the world starts a trend... Technology traverses the world at a lightning pace, and you have to listen. We have a hub that listens to everything that is trending around the world – everything related to our 550 brands. You've got to make sure that when the world is turning, you don't fall asleep.

"No longer is it enough to make a good product. You have to make a product that fulfills more than just one expectation from you as a company. You need to be in line with what they expect your character to be."    

On how consumer expectations have evolved

No longer is it enough to make a good product. You have to make a product that fulfills more than just one expectation from you as a company. You need to be in line with what they expect your character to be. So when we can actually say ‘we are now returning all the water we use globally, and ahead of our goal' – as we did in Stockholm – that plays into your consumers' expectations. That is critically important as a brand business. We say, "A brand is a promise, and a great brand is a promise kept." We have to work every single day to keep those promises for our brands.

Freestyle East Lake

The Coca-Cola Freestyle fountain dispenser lets consumers select from more than 130 sparkling and still beverage choices.

Chris Rank


On consumers’ thirst for personalization and choice

We are moving from a world of mass marketing to mass personalization. The consumer is telling us every single day, “I want to personalize.” It's technology enabled, as well. We could not have had the “Share a Coke” program without inkjet technology that has evolved to allow printing names on cans. And it will evolve in the next few years where in a city, if a team wins, you'll have your packaging out celebrating (that) night. That is the future.

Our traditional fountain beverage equipment has six beverage choices. We said, "What can we do to have a unit that can provide multiple choices?” Coca-Cola Freestyle has 130 choices of beverages with an interface Millennials love. Routine dogma would have said, "Don't do that, because what will happen if brand Coca-Cola is one of 130 choices on a screen, and people do not choose to drink it? And guess what? Today, after 75,000 to 80,000 Freestyles, brand Coca-Cola is still doing very well on Freestyle machines. The key is to make sure you stay ahead of consumer choice because they want more choices. They want to experiment.

Global Shapers Community

Members of the Global Shapers community onstage at a World Economic Forum meeting in Davos.

On the need for outside-in innovation and creating a network of innovation partners

We think the best ideas are outside our four walls. I call it the Power of Partnerships… partnerships with our bottlers, with our great customers, with governments, with NGOs. This is a new world, and you get power from those partnerships.

It’s about having the courage to create an ecosystem around you, particularly with Millennials and young people, so you feel confident enough to take risks. We worked with the World Economic Forum, WEF, to create something called the Global Shapers… social entrepreneurs between the ages of 19 to 25. There are now 360 hubs around the world. We were the first supporter of the Global Shapers. WEF has taken the decision to make sure that on every panel they have, they'll have a Global Shaper. It changes the dialogue, whether you're talking about social issues, economic issues, political issues, the future, the past – the dialogue changes when you're with people between 19 and 25. And I find it very refreshing, no pun intended, to be around them. I learn personally every time I'm with them.

"We are moving from a world of mass marketing to mass personalization. The consumer is telling us every single day, 'I want to personalize."

On the responsibility of public companies to create more than shareholder value 

The old view of the world was shareholder value creation. It still is, however it's now also stakeholder value creation. You have to make sure you are adding value to a host of stakeholders on a long-term basis. Long-term value creation for, yes, your shareholders, but also your customers, bottling partners, NGO partners, governments…

On his brand-building responsibilities as chairman and CEO

When people ask me, "What is your job?" I say, "It is to go in wherever I am going that day, and to make sure I am polishing our brands a little more." And if I come back at night and I say, "I have polished the brands a little bit more," then I sleep more comfortably.

Read a recap of the panel on the Aspen Institute’s website.