Coca-Cola – life lessons

19 December 2014

Coca-Cola products are responsible for more than 1.9 billion of the approximate
57 billion beverage servings consumed each day. Successfully connecting with consumers, and providing them with choice and convenience to match their varied refreshment needs underpins the innovation of packaging and products at the company. There have been a number of innovative product launches from Minute Maid Drops to the new ‘Life’ in 2014, down to the humble PET bottle, and specifically the journey of PlantBottle. Matt Rogerson finds out more from Scott Vitters, general manager, PlantBottle packaging innovation platform.

Since introducing PlantBottle packaging - the first-ever fully recyclable PET plastic bottle made partially from plants - Coca-Cola has distributed more than 25 billion of the bottles to thirsty consumers in 37 countries. The breakthrough technology also has helped catalyse a movement to redirect the entire polyester fibre and plastic-resin industry toward a renewable future.

"We continue to advance what has been received as a transformational innovation in the materials space," says Scott Vitters, general manager, PlantBottle packaging innovation platform at The Coca-Cola Company. "We believe the power of an idea is in its use and want to achieve global scale, and we know we can't do that alone."

PlantBottle packaging now accounts for 30% of the company's packaging volume in North America and 7% globally, making Coke the world's largest bioplastics end user.

Over the past five years, the company's adoption of the technology has eliminated the equivalent of approximately 240,000t of CO2 emissions. PlantBottle packaging also has resonated with consumers, helped boost sales of brands, won sustainable and innovation awards and captured the collective attention of the supplier, scientific/academic and investor community. Earlier in 2014, PlantBottle packaging was recognised by the US Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry for helping to fuel the bio-based manufacturing boom during a hearing on Capitol Hill.

Part of this buzz is because PlantBottle Technology is being used to produce more than plastic bottles. From day one, Coca-Cola decided to license it to non-competitive companies to expand its application and build a global supply chain for PlantBottle material.

Bottle rocket

In 2011, Coca-Cola took the first step in this collaborative innovation approach by licensing PlantBottle Technology to Heinz for use in its ketchup bottles. In 2013, Ford Motor Company announced plans to use the same renewable material found in PlantBottle packaging in the fabric interior of its Fusion Energi hybrid Sedan, and earlier in 2014, the first reusable, fully recyclable plastic cup made with PlantBottle technology rolled out in SeaWorld and Busch Gardens theme parks across the US.

"Once we fully realised the power of PlantBottle technology, we knew it had real-world, global applications well beyond our own products," says Vitters. "These collaborations demonstrate that this technology can be used across the entire polyester universe - in everything from the inside of a car, to carpet, to clothing - and with a lighter footprint on the planet."

The company also has invested in three leading biotech companies - Virent, Gevo and Avantium - to quicken the commercialisation of a PET plastic bottle made entirely from plants. Recently, the company made an additional investment in Virent's development and commercialisation of its bio-based technology.

The PlantBottle packaging journey is just beginning. Coca-Cola plans to convert all PET plastic bottles - which account for approximately 60% of its packaging globally - to PlantBottle packaging by 2020.

The packaging can also be used as an effective marketing tool. The environmental and long-term cost benefits of PlantBottle technology have been clear since day one, but it took a few years to realize its potential to build emotional connections with consumers. PlantBottle packaging has proven to be a top differentiator for many Coke brands, particularly its water portfolio, led by Dasani in the US. "We've seen great momentum and recently introduced the technology across our water portfolio in key markets such as Italy, Russia and the UK," Vitters says.

Now, the technology is rolling out across several tea and juice brands, including Simply, Minute Maid and Gold Peak in the US, plus Coca-Cola Life. "The next step is to learn how to use PlantBottle packaging to reinforce intrinsics like plant-based, natural and premium with these brands," Vitters adds.

Cost improvement over cost parity

When it comes to linking the technology with a brand, there's no such thing as a one-size-fits-all marketing approach. The PlantBottle packaging message must be tailored from brand to brand. A soon-to-launch campaign for Coca-Cola, for example, will leverage the proven connection between plants and personal happiness.

"With Coke and the other 20-plus brands in PlantBottle packaging, it's not about slapping a logo on a pack," Vitters continues. "It's about positioning PlantBottle packaging authentically and properly in a way that's relevant to a specific brand's voice to drive growth."

PlantBottle technology has the potential to drive long-term cost advantages for Coke as the plant-based material supply chain develops. Vitters and his team continue to identify new bio-based technologies that are less expensive - and more stable - than volatile, fossil-based resources such as oil and natural gas.

"We're seeing technologies move from R&D to commercial scale and becoming more real by the day," Vitters says. "We are investing in and working on solutions that will allow us to optimise the cost and improve the price predictability of our most important packing system.

"There's a very healthy scientific discussion taking place around uses for biomass that's increasingly prioritising biomass use for products - like PlantBottle packaging - that can be used multiple times unlike bio-energy or fuel," Vitters adds. PlantBottle technology uses natural sugars found in plants to make ingredients identical to fossil-based ingredients traditionally used in polyester fibres and resin for bottles.

Coke is focused on PlantBottle technology's use of responsibly sourced biomaterials that can be reused and recycled again and again. Work is also underway to develop new technologies to source sugars from plant waste such as barks, stems and peels, and Coke is partnering with World Wildlife Fund (WWF) to create guiding principles for sourcing agricultural feedstocks.

Vitters also says the programme's progress can be attributed the fact that a "collaboratively matrixed" team - which includes R&D, supply chain, marketing, procurement and other functions - is stewarding the PlantBottle technology platform, and because Coke has been willing to share the technology to drive scale.

"I think the results we've seen with PlantBottle technology can be replicated," he says. "Our work is built around a strong leadership commitment against a big bet and a compelling business case."

Scott Vitters is responsible for leading The Coca-Cola Company’s global PlantBottle packaging technology programme. Under Vitters’ leadership, PlantBottle packaging is demonstrating how ‘smart’ technologies can be used to successfully differentiate brands with customers and consumers.

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