Is Coca-Cola a social enterprise now? Why ‘development’ needs to be more critical with global corporations

When Coca Cola launched its new website Coca Cola Journey a few days ago, marketing and social media experts and even journalists at the New York Times were full of delight about the future of brand communication:
The company known for decades for promoting its flagship brand as “the pause that refreshes” is refreshing its corporate Web site for a new century, adopting an approach and attitude more akin to a consumer magazine than a business portal. The new design is closer to a magazine, with content for consumers.
The company is, of course, Coca-Cola, which plans on Monday to give its site a makeover that executives describe as the most ambitious digital project they have undertaken.
And if you visit the website you may think that you arrived at some philanthropic endeavor, a social enterprise or foundation maybe.

Smiling non-white children in blue school uniforms (usually one of the best ‘development indicators’...), a corporate social responsibility report on the front page and lots and lots of stuff about storytelling, innovation, leadership and community featuring sports personalities and even a special Olympics athlete – how active and inclusive is that?!

In a 2011 YouTube video they even come up with something that looks a bit like their own theory of change:

ow is the time to “redefine the mission of aid and assistance so it is more inclusive of the private sector.”

Embracing the private sector is really the hot topic in development at the moment as the above quote from a Manager for Corporate Responsibility at Chevron indicates.
In a recent discussion on development education at the Center for Global Development, Carol Lancaster, the Dean of the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, mentioned a discussion she had with Coca Cola executives in India and came to the conclusion:

They [Coca Cola] do an awful lot of things that look like development projects.
Her vision for the graduate program was to show students ‘a pathway into the sector’ were ‘interesting and exciting’ companies like WalMart would offer entry points for development graduates.
And earlier this year we had a discussion whether you should get a MBA to be prepared for the development work of the future where Charles Kenny and I shared our views. These are just a few vignettes, but the hint in the same direction: Development and the private sector need to work more closely together to make change happen - and the gap between the two is closing as development realizes the power of the business sector and many multinational companies are keen to 'help out' development while they are expanding into new markets.

Of course it’s not always black and white when it comes to business involvement in development, but the examples of Chevron, Coca Cola or Citibank (which is also featured in the DevEx article) raise more fundamental questions for development as the very business models of these corporations has not and most likely will never be aligned with basic principles of good development.
Or, to be more precise, as these and other companies seem to discover the world of ‘development’, we should not overlook their negative impact on some of their original, Western markets and societies. If these companies would work on green energy, put less sugar in their products or reduce credit card interest they could have an impact on millions of lives, household and communities – exactly what they are claiming to look for. Unfortunately, wind energy, healthy diets and a few dollars more in the bank accounts of struggling families rarely create the kind of ‘stories’ these companies are after. Because after all it is about marketing and creating a brand imagine without jeopardizing the core business model and ‘bottom line’ of revenues.

Educated elites communicating with each other?
I have the feeling that we, being the educated ‘elites’ of sorts who often end up working in ‘development’, let corporations off the hook too easily, probably believing that they share the same vision and values just because their corporate communication speaks the same educated, elite language than we do.

As most of us who live in North America, I do buy many groceries in a supermarket and even once in a while use a coupon for a discounted meal at a fast food chain. I see ridiculous promotions on humongous bottles of sodas and unhealthy juice drinks that are likely to end up in many lunch boxes of pupils in the school across the street (after all, they have ‘no juice squirting’ as one of the five or so basic playground rules...). And the scenes at many fast food locations are a far cry from the glitzy salad-eating, latte-sipping urban crowd of party people who supposedly gather there. A normal family often enjoys three to four liters of Coca Cola products in one sitting. These communities seem to be as far away from the corporate responsibility vision as most small towns on any other continent.

No matter how appealing social media communications, conference presentations or field visits for journalists or university deans etc, may be, development studies, research, activism and programming has the responsibility to use their critical thinking skills to point out the half-naked emperor that may even avoid paying taxes in your country; taxes that could easily be used in many ways to ‘improve lives’, but without showing ‘poor people’ and having photo ops with children in blue school uniforms...

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