There are few commercial products that are more than just products. They are brands that weave their way into your coming of age story. They leave a nostalgic sparkle in your psyche and have a lasting connectivity to what it means to be you.
For 128 years, Coca-Cola has striven to understand what it means to be you. Identifying and assimilating into what is important to successive generations has actually been the real “secret recipe” of Coca-Cola. During the Great Depression, Coke brought hope by creating the Santa Claus we know today- a jolly man in a red suit bearing gifts and joy to families who needed it. The illustrator who designed Santa was Haddon Sundblom, the son of Swedish-immigrants to America.
An original poster of Sundblom’s Santa was displayed in the U.S. Ambassadorial residence in Stockholm when we hosted Muhtar Kent, Chairman and CEO of the Coca-Cola Company on March 18th. Mr. Kent was the fourth keynote speaker in a lunch series called “The Businessman-Statesman.” A description of the series can be found here.
The Embassy’s Businessman-Statesman series is built around the notion that leaders of today understand the values and context of tomorrow. Muhtar is that kind of leader. This was evident in his prescient choice of topic for the lunch: the rising Millennial Generation.
“I believe without question that the global millennial generation has the power to unlock next-level prosperity around the world. Millennials believe the world can be a better place and that they have a role in making it better. They also expect that the businesses and organizations they associate with do the same.”
A widely reported March 7, 2014, survey by the Pew Research Center finds that millennials are “relatively unattached to organized politics and religion, linked by social media, burdened by debt, distrustful of people, in no rush to marry- and optimistic about the future.”
So are millennials a generation adrift, or are they the next “greatest generation”, a creative cohort that can bring innovation to new levels? Are they a generation long on caring and short on sacrifice, or one intrinsically committed to social causes?
If you ask Muhtar Kent, they are poised to change the world: “We’ve all heard about the Greatest Generation. My own father and mother were part of this extraordinary generation, which overcame the Great Depression, defeated Nazism and created the post-war world of the United Nations and NATO. I believe our rising millennial generation can be the next Greatest Generation. The challenges are great, but the opportunities are even greater! ”
Kent shares the devout optimism of millennials and defines them as engaged, altruistic, informed, technologically advanced and entrepreneurial. He highlights their global context and communitarianism as critical to future prosperity.
“While national and local cultures still matter, this generation has grown up in a global nursery, a global kindergarten of shared experiences. And that means they have as much- or more- in common with peers in Johannesburg, Beijing and Rio as they do with their parents or grandparents. In time, I think this shared experience could make a big difference in the way this generation views both challenges and opportunities.”
He believes so much in this generation that Coke has sponsored the “Global Shapers” program – an initiative created at the World Economic Forum in Davos that serves as a network for 3371 “shapers” in 315 hubs around the world. The focus is to help leverage and amplify the creativity and drive of the “shapers” to make change for the social good.
This generation born after 1980 comprises approximately 80 million Americans. A focus on diversity and an adamant aversion to hierarchy and elitism are very much at the core of a generation in America that’s one of the most diverse in history. Kent himself personifies the Millennials’ egalitarian ethos. When asked about the secret to his success, his answer was simple: “I carry my own bag.”
Deploring arrogance and entitlement, Kent described spending his teen years as the son of the Turkish Ambassador to Sweden and working at the local grocery store Åhléns in Stockholm.
In fact, the struggle for equality, social justice and transparency are strong shared values between America and Sweden. The synchronicity between this moment, the generational tidal wave of change, and the values shared between our two countries is compelling.
Below are key points covered by Mr. Kent in his keynote remarks and the ensuing dialogue that occurred during the Businessman Statesman lunch.
Why do you think the millennial generation will reshape the world?
Muhtar Kent: There are four fundamental reasons why I believe the millennial generation will make the world a much better place:
1. They possess an unbridled energy, optimism and can-do attitude.
2. Their global mindset is unequaled among past youth generations.
3. Their entrepreneurial spirit and do-it-yourself nature are palpable.
4. And their grasp of enlightened self-interest shows a deep sense of social awareness, responsibility and maturity.
How are millennials shaping the business world through innovation?
This generation has a strong and seemingly irrepressible entrepreneurial spirit. We’re seeing young people all over the world starting and expanding new businesses. Partly this is from necessity, as the economic troubles of recent years have sent youth unemployment numbers soaring. But it’s also one of choice, as many young people who could have their pick of positions with established companies choose to go their own way, sparking growth and jobs and greater opportunity for all.
As they pursue success in business, they know they have the power to build sustainable practices into every aspect of what they do. Just look at what’s happening with social entrepreneurship, young people solving challenges through business! Not only do Millennials want to make society better but they expect that the businesses and organizations they associate with do the same.
How does Coca-Cola shape sustainable communities?
At Coca-Cola we know our business can only be as strong and sustainable as the communities we proudly serve. So we’ve made a point of creating community value and making a difference in areas where we are particularly qualified to lead. Today we call them the “Three W’s”: Water, Women and Well-Being.
With our bottling partners, we’re working to achieve water neutrality by 2020, replenishing every liter we use. We’re working to empower 5 million women entrepreneurs globally by 2020. And we’ve committed to launch healthy living programs in all of the 200-plus markets we serve by 2020.
We just launched two weeks ago our new healthy living program for Sweden, which is a partnership with the Swedish Swimming Federation aimed at supporting various swimming activities across the country over several years.
What future challenges do you see for this generation and all of our economies?
The challenge will be to broaden this generation’s accomplishments to involve more of the Millennial cohort: engaging the unengaged, connecting the unconnected and ultimately employing the unemployed.
Right now, global youth unemployment threatens the economic vitality, social fabric and long-term stability of many nations. In Europe, 24 percent of youth are without work, with much larger percentages unemployed in Spain, Greece, Portugal and Italy. This is true for youth in the Middle East and North Africa. The human cost is staggering, as jobless young people struggle to become positive contributors to their families, communities and countries.
For business the opportunity is great. Creating more jobs accelerates a great virtuous cycle that boosts productivity and wages, reduces crime and reinforces a host of social virtues, including greater stability, self-esteem and community commitment.
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