Coca-Cola C.E.O.: Voting Rights Advocate?

A company with Southern roots and global reach tries to find its voice on an issue that disproportionately affects Black voters.,

James Quincey
James QuinceyCredit…Tom Jamieson for The New York Times

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Coca-Cola C.E.O.: Voting Rights Advocate?

A company with Southern roots and global reach tries to find its voice on an issue that disproportionately affects Black voters.

James QuinceyCredit…Tom Jamieson for The New York Times

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When James Quincey became chief executive of Coca-Cola in 2017, it’s fair to say he wasn’t focused on how to articulate the company’s position on the issue of voting rights. Instead, Mr. Quincey, who grew up in Birmingham, England, and has spent most of his career outside the United States, was consumed with the usual C.E.O. fare — expanding the business, keeping the share price up and not damaging the brand.

But in a measure of just how much politics has permeated big business these days, Mr. Quincey is now embroiled in a fierce debate over a wave of Republican legislation that would effectively make it harder for people to vote, including many Black voters, in some states.

As one such law made its way through the Georgia legislature in recent weeks, activists began to call on Coca-Cola, which has its headquarters in Atlanta, to publicly oppose the proposed law. Though the company doesn’t have a history of weighing in on voting rights one way or another, big companies have become increasingly drawn into social and political conversations in recent years. As a vote on the law drew near, Mr. Quincey was under pressure to pick a side.

Coca-Cola ultimately issued a carefully worded statement saying that “voting is a foundational right in America” and pledging to “work to advance voting rights and access in Georgia and across the country.” But it didn’t publicly weigh in on the legislation before Gov. Brian Kemp, a Republican, signed it into law last Thursday.

The company’s cautious response drew protests and calls for a boycott from activists, who wanted Coca-Cola, along with other major Georgia companies like Delta Air Lines, to speak out against the new law. More than 70 prominent Black executives called on corporations to do more to protect voting rights.

Hours after the Black executives made their statement, Mr. Quincey forcefully came out against the Georgia law for the first time. “I want to be crystal clear,” he said. “The Coca-Cola Company does not support this legislation, as it makes it harder for people to vote, not easier.”

The statement was welcomed by activists, though many said it was too little, too late. Yet at the same time, Mr. Quincey’s words drew the ire of prominent conservatives, with Senator Roger Wicker of Mississippi, the Fox News host Laura Ingraham and Stephen Miller, an adviser to former President Donald J. Trump, attacking the company on Twitter.

Laws similar to the one just passed in Georgia have been proposed in nearly every state, and, in part to combat that, Congress is working on a sweeping bill that would reform voting rights nationwide. Already, activists dissatisfied with the company’s response in Georgia are pressing the company to do more around the country, while conservatives call on Coca-Cola, and Mr. Quincey, to stay out of politics.

It was another illustration, as if one was needed, of how the political polarization straining the country is creating fault lines in corporate America, with big brands caught in the middle.

The following was condensed and edited from two conversations, the second of which took place six days after the Georgia law was passed.

You waited six days after the Georgia law was passed to criticize it. What changed?

What changed is the legislation passed. The process was curtailed, was rushed, was not profound enough, and the resulting legislation is unacceptable, and it needs to be corrected. Work needs to be done to make this a step forward, not a step backward, in terms of broader access to voting, and that’s what we’re going to continue to advocate for as we go into this next phase.

Whatever we were doing before was not getting through. People are misconstruing, by honest error or willfully, what we have stood for and what we’re trying to do. Obviously they could disagree whether you should do more or less in private and public. But there’s enough stories out there saying the opposite of what we’ve actually said and believe in. We have to go and correct that at the very minimum, and most importantly, we need to generate some clarity that we’re going to continue to advocate against this bill.

Do you regret not coming out against the law more forcefully before the law was actually signed by Governor Kemp?

No one in the legislature was under any illusion as to our views on the various drafts or even the final law. They knew. Would it have made any difference if we had said anything publicly? We’ll never know. If we could have done something in retrospect to have made a different outcome, of course, we would have preferred to have done it. Because we don’t like the outcome.

Similar bills are being advanced in more than 40 other states. How far will Coca-Cola go to oppose them?

We’re a Georgia-based company. That’s going to be certainly our starting point. I don’t see us having the wherewithal to understand every nuance in every other state. I think there will be energy directed at the federal level. If you go back historically, federal oversight of changing the voting processes in the states has been an important process to make sure that things move forward, not backward.

Do you see a double standard between the way in which companies are engaging with the issue of voting rights and how they’ve engaged with other issues, be it L.G.B.T. bills or climate change, or immigration, in the past?

It’s not that the corporate community was not involved. We were perhaps not as public as some people wish we had been, or perhaps would have made more difference.

You’ve got this tension of getting companies involved — the tension of dragging, or having companies pulled, into politics. When do I get involved? You can’t possibly be involved in every issue. So getting clear on what are the most important things to your company is what we go back to.

We’re very clear on the importance of diversity and inclusion to the Coca-Cola Company, which aspires to be a brand for everyone, and particularly in the South, given its history. We stand for diversity and inclusion in Georgia above all else, and that’s why we came to the table on this issue. We tried to affect change. It didn’t work. But we have not given up by any stretch of the imagination.

You had lots of senior roles before becoming C.E.O. What is the biggest difference as C.E.O.?

When you become C.E.O. you think you’ve got this organizational pyramid and you’ve come at the apex, and now everyone works for you. But then you find out there’s another pyramid, but it’s upside down, and you’re the one person at the bottom.

There’s a huge number of stakeholders who want to tell you what to do, and many of them don’t work in the business. So you deal with the board, the media, the investors, the analysts, the NGOs, the government. You have this whole galaxy of people you need to deal with in a way that was never true for any of the other jobs. If you haven’t gotten really clear on what are the few things that I want to tell people about and prioritize things this, it can be quite destabilizing.

Does the soda industry have a reputation problem?

The first step is to realize that something’s going wrong. When you’re a famous brand and a famous company, issues get brought to your door every day. If you want to get attention to something, calling it Coke’s fault, or thinking that Coke could help us get this fixed, is much easier than doing that with Acme, Inc., who no one’s heard of.

That doesn’t mean we should bury our heads in the sand. We need to look at them and work out, whether we agree it’s a real problem, and what are we in favor of as part of the solution? We can’t solve everything.

Is Coca-Cola working to diversify away from sugar-heavy drinks?

The starting point is: What does the consumer really want? They want great tasting drinks. And what’s the consequence of some of that? The total food and beverage diet is delivering too many calories and too much sugar. You can get that answer from any health professional. OK. So are we going to tell the consumers what to drink? Are we going to restrict them? We still want to grow our business. But what’s our role in a problem where people are consuming too many calories and too much sugar? We need to get our sugar footprint, for want of a better expression, to go down.

We need the business to grow because if we just sign up to a shrinking business, there’ll be a shareholder revolt. We have to sign up to a growing business with a shrinking sugar footprint. What does that require? Well, it requires us to drive the zero calorie products. It requires us to drive into smaller package sizes. And we need to innovate in drinks that are inherently lower calorie or lower sugar. If we do that, we can actually grow the business and reduce the sugar footprint.

How has the pandemic changed consumer habits?

Half our business is away from home. So with the cinemas closed, the airlines, the hotels, you can see how much it’s down. But what did grow, because people were obliged effectively to spend more time at home, was a resurgence in breakfast. We used to all get up and rush out of apartments to go to work, and many people skip breakfast. Well, now they have more time for it. So juice sales were up.

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