A combination of consumer demand and corporate innovation is what sustains sales for some of the world's best-known brand names and brings an ever-expanding range of new products to the shelves and freezers of our neighbourhood stores. Behind this, is the fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) industry which has long set standards in creativity and tests the skills of marketing executives to the utmost.
As the name itself suggests, the sector never stands still and the speed implied relates as much to the constantly changing competitive environment as the rate at which products are made, marketed and sold.
Beverages are a typical FMCG item and, as the weather heats up and we move into the height of the summer season, Hong Kong's thirst for soft drinks of all kinds will be hard to satisfy. Even so, it would be wrong to assume that the people who manufacture and sell these products have an easy time of it in promoting their brands and capturing a share of the local market.
Swire Coca-Cola HK is a case in point. As the territory's largest ready-to-drink beverage manufacturer, its channel sales division has a team of 20 sales and marketing executives who promote more than 20 soft drink brands. The best-selling Coca-Cola leads the way but there are also fruit juices, Bonaqua mineral water and various teas and coffees.
For Joseph Ho, senior manager-channel sales, the speed of the business is what creates most pressure. "FMCG never stops," he says. "Some new products only have short life cycles so the business requires marketers who are dynamic enough to keep pace with rapid developments. We have to be quick in anticipating and reacting to shifts in consumer demand." It is an advantage that the beverages are produced in Hong Kong, allowing faster responses to the market than can be managed by companies which manufacture in China.
Marketing beverages has taught him how to respond to consumer demand
To market beverage products successfully, an executive needs special attributes. "Analytical ability, an understanding of statistics and a good knowledge of the products are necessary," says Mr Ho. "And, as personal qualities, an outgoing personality, excellent presentation and communication skills and proficiency in both Chinese and English are a must." In addition, sensitivity to the so-called "4 Ps" - pricing, promotion, products and place of distribution - help in discerning what consumers will buy and which promotional activities will work best.
The company has a separate team to develop brand strategy. Once themes and policy are established, Mr Ho's channel management department is responsible for implementation. "Sometimes a bit of fine-tuning or adjustment is required to cope with the actual needs of retail customers," he notes.
Another duty is the control of beverage sales in all retail outlets. The marketing team maintains regular contact with retailers and collects feedback from consumers. This is used to design future promotional programmes. For example, Coca-Cola is a major sponsor of many international sports events, including the UEFA Euro 2004 soccer finals in Portugal. Suitable tie-in campaigns must be organised to capitalise on this and maximise sales during and after the tournament.
Longer-term strategies are also designed taking into account consumption trends, resources available and anticipated competition from other brands.
In the modern world of marketing, executives must also understand logistics and how the supply chain works. Huge and complex distribution networks are now a key part of the operation and are the link between the company and its customers. Knowledge of corporate strategy is also vital. "In the past, we would 'push' our products to retailers who would then sell to consumers," Mr Ho explains. "Today, the opposite happens. We have to 'pull' in information on consumer needs from retailers and cater to their requirements. This strategy is more efficient and cost effective for production."
There is no barrier for marketing professionals in other fields switching to beverages. Success depends mainly on having an interest in the products and a passion for the job.
When Swire Coca-Cola HK has sales and marketing vacancies, fresh graduates are hired to start as account executives while more seasoned professionals may join as account managers or channel sales managers. Promotion prospects are determined by an individual's academic background, experience and performance. Bonuses are now closely tied to achieving sales targets and to the company's overall financial results.
Mr Ho advises newcomers interested in entering the field to become familiar with the company's products and form views on how to promote them before attending a job interview. A good presentation based on this will automatically enhance the chances of success.
The cycles of the beverage business are predictable and generally unaffected by the overall economy. Mr Ho foresees steady growth and is not worried about the prospect of having to achieve higher sales targets every year. "In sales and marketing, job satisfaction comes from breaking new ground, surpassing targets and introducing new products so that is what we always aim to do," he says.