Ilan Sobel

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[Shanghai] Since Ilan Sobel arrived here one year ago as Coca-Cola Co.'s top marketing executive in China, he's transformed Coke's image in the eyes of young Chinese from a boring family drink to a brand that likes to play games-computer games, to be specific.

To strengthen Coke's connection with its core market, Mr. Sobel, as general manager-strategic marketing and innovation, has placed greater emphasis on "big, bold breakthrough programs based on insights about what inspires our consumers, their passions and interests."

He's tapped into teens' obsession with online games by setting up a marketing alliance with the creators of one of China's hottest games, "World of Warcraft." The interiors of 10,000 Internet cafes in key cities have been decorated with elaborate "WoW" and Coke branding, and the game was brought to life with a massive three-day carnival in Shanghai.

The Chinese swiftly adopt new technology. "Consumers yearn to experience it and use it to bring out their own self-identity through games, mobile phones, blogs," says Mr. Sobel, 32. "The essence of the whole insight is helping consumers to express themselves. The Coke brand now helps them realize it in every campaign, through a defining moment where the hero, or celebrity, goes his own way."

Bold changes were necessary in China, the fifth-largest Coke market by volume after the U.S., Mexico, Brazil and Japan. Although Coke has a solid distribution network and is the top-selling carbonated soft drink in most Chinese cities, the brand wasn't hip among the young urban consumers who set trends. Urban teens were gravitating toward Pepsi.

Coke turned to Mr. Sobel, a South African who transformed Coke's Hong Kong division into a hothouse for product innovation, churning out new beverages like Sprite Ice, Sprite on Fire, Fanta Lactic, Nescafe Ice and Nestea Ice Rush. Before that, he engineered marketing for Coca-Cola's Nam Thip, now Thailand's top bottled water.

"Ilan's arrival should make China's soft-drink category a lot more exciting, based on what he did in Hong Kong. Coke was hugely dynamic in the years he was there in areas like flavor extensions," says Darryl Andrew, managing director-China at researcher Synovate.

Mr. Sobel's knack for creating new products is key in China, where Coca-Cola's fastest-growing brands aren't carbonated drinks. Its latest hits are a Minute Maid formulation with extra pulp and Modern Tea Workshop, a green tea with herbal additives that promote health. Coke plans to introduce both elsewhere in Asia.

Although Coke acknowledges it's not the dominant player in every beverage segment in China, "We are making enormous strides," Mr. Sobel says. "As income levels continue to rise in China, beverage consumption will continue to expand."

But Coke isn't the only one watching that income rise. "There are so many companies competing for the hearts of Chinese consumers," Mr. Sobel says. "Every multinational is going for a share of consumers' wallets. We see our competitors as not just other beverage companies-even though the beverage market is a competitive marketplace-because really everyone is a competitor."