Coke's Linda Kovarik

And other people news in Greater China

By Published on .

HONG KONG--Coca Cola Co. has turned to a savvy American trend spotter based in Tokyo to help create new products and brands outside Japan in categories like tea.

Sound familiar? It should, but we're not talking about Mary Minnick, the legendary Coke executive who went from a senior executive posting in Japan to president of marketing, strategy, and innovation at its global headquarters in Atlanta two years ago (and who left in February 2007 after 23 years at Coca-Cola).

To raise Coca-Cola's level of creativity and consumer understanding across Asia, the company has tapped Linda Kovarik, now executive planning director at Beacon, Leo Burnett's joint venture in Tokyo with Dentsu, as its regional creative excellence director for Asia/Pacific, excluding Japan. In Hong Kong, she will succeed David Ellsworth, who recently relocated to Tokyo as VP, creative excellence in Japan.

At Beacon for the past two-and-a-half years, Ms. Kovarik has worked with Coke and other multinationals like Procter & Gamble Co., McDonald's Corp. and Sony Corp. in Japan, a country with a deserved reputation for spawning global trends, particularly in beverages. Alongside Japanese giants like Suntory and Kirin, Coke has scored a few branding hits of its own, such as Georgia, a popular canned coffee drink, in a market where Coke launches up to 40 new products a year.

One of the “great things” about Japan is that they have as many beverages on the market as China has shampoos, said Ms. Kovarik, who speaks in a mile-a-minute cadence that exudes enthusiasm. “I can see China becoming that developed, with a gigantic amount of choice, more unsweetened bottled teas, more products like Georgia.”

She will report to Darren Marshall, Hong Kong-based group marketing director for Coke's Pacific group, which encompasses most Asian markets, including China.

"She's cool and smart,” said Mr. Marshall. "The key priority for us is elevating what we do creatively. She knows the region and has a good understanding of our brands and what we do.”

Although she won't take up her new role until next month, the two executives have quickly forged a bond, partly over “being from outskirts of the action. He's from Canada and I'm from South Dakota,” Ms. Kovarik laughed. “He's also very driven and detail-oriented and understands the marketing process well.”

As part of Coke's regional marketing team, she will work internally on planning issues for Coke brands as well as marketing around the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing.

“With the Olympics coming up, China will be a showcase in many respects. The country won't be my main focus, that underestimates the importance of other markets in the region,” said Ms. Kovarik, who will also interact with all Coke's agencies in Asia, including her current employer, McCann Erickson and Ogilvy & Mather.

Before she relocated to Japan, Ms. Kovarik was Leo Burnett's regional planning director for P&G brands in Asia/Pacific, where her dual understanding of Asian consumers and the U.S. company's brands like Vidal Sassoon, Max Factor, Rejoice, Clairol and Whisper helped turn P&G into a market leader across the region.

She helped P&G revamp SK-II from a little-known Japanese product into Asia's top-selling premium skin care brand at the expense of prestige brands such as Estee Lauder, Lancome and Dior.

Marketing for SK-II skin whitening masks, for example, featured the product's ability to reduce undertones, “tapping into our discovery that many Asian women feel they have yellow, red and green undertones. That was a huge insight for us,” recalled Ms. Kovarik.

She also helped P&G grow Rejoice into China's top-selling shampoo with ads depicting “real women” in scenarios that ring true to them, such as attending a night school class, or taking parents on an airplane for the first time, “not just a figure with hair. We had to find out how they strive for more in a fast-changing, imperfect world.”

These minute but crucial insights about the factors driving Chinese consumers to spend their hard-earned cash on western brands appealed to Coke. Mr. Marshall hopes innovation in other parts of Asia will yield similar success stories in categories like tea, coffee, water and juice.

A charismatic mother in her late thirties with diverse hobbies like basketball and designing bras, Ms. Kovarik is eager to return to Hong Kong for personal reasons as well. Her husband Charles Edwards, who runs his own media company, remained in the Chinese city during her stint in Japan.

They moved to Hong Kong, where they both joined Leo Burnett in 1999. She handled planning for brands such as McDonald's, Johnson & Johnson and Coca-Cola across Greater China, and played a key role in the agency's successful pitch for Wrigley's creative. In 2002, Leo Burnett nurtured her strategic planning talent by creating her current regional role.

She's also eager to return to China. Ms. Kovarik turned to marketing a decade ago while living in the mainland, where she became fluent in Mandarin. Before that, she was a UNESCO program officer, documentary producer and university lecturer, until she “found her calling,” she said, as a strategic planner at now-defunct Ammirati Puris Lintas in 1998 in Shanghai.

“I'm very nostalgic about old China and very optimistic about new China,” said Ms. Kovarik. “With the Olympics coming up next year, it's exciting to be in the driver's seat at a company that's a global sponsor.”

And the next Japanese trend that may infiltrate the global beverage market? According to Ms. Kovarik, rose is the “hip ingredient” in Japan right now for products like flavored rose water and rose-infused vitamins and chewing gum.

“Rose has been marketed as a scent that can flavor the body, so it exudes the scent of roses through sweat and can flavor the body. It's a hit with salarymen, who hope it can disguise 'old man smell' and make them more attractive to women.”

Other people news in Greater China

[Hong Kong] Grey Global Group has promoted Hong Kong-based Susan Reingold, formerly responsible for regional corporate communications, to senior VP, corporate development, Asia/Pacific, a new position. She will be responsible for leading the cultural transition and integration process for companies that Grey acquires in Asia as well as creating a new talent development program. The role is part of a regional strategy by the WPP Group network to increase scale through acquisitions and build its cross disciplinary talent. Her previous role will be filled by Frances Lui in Singapore, who has joined Grey as senior VP and chief communications officer for Asia/Pacific.

[Hong Kong] TBWA Worldwide’s brand management consulting unit The Disruption Consultancy has appointed Hong Kong-based Doris Ho as managing director in Hong Kong. Previously, she ran an independent brand consultancy, Sprout Brands. She succeeds Michael McComb, who has been promoted to group managing director, also based in Hong Kong.

[St. Louis] Anheuser-Busch Cos. has named Stephen Burrows as president-CEO of its Asia/Pacific operations. Anheuser-Busch sells Budweiser in China and owns Chinese brewers Harbin Brewery Group and Wuhan Brewing Co. It also owns about 27% of Tsingtao Brewery Co., China's largest beer maker. Previously president-CEO, international, Mr. Burrows will remain based at Anheuser-Busch’s headquarters in St. Louis, Missouri.

[Hong Kong] Initiative Media has appointed Chris Skinner as managing director of its Hong Kong office, a new position. Previously, he was CEO of ZenithOptimedia in Hong Kong.

[Hong Kong] After six years in Asia and 18 at Leo Burnett, John Woodward is leaving his position in Hong Kong as the agency’s regional planning director to take a role at another Publicis Groupe agency, Publicis Worldwide, in Paris, focusing on global new business strategy. He'll be working again with Richard Pinder, chief operating officer of Publicis Worldwide, who ran Leo Burnett’s operation in Asia from Hong Kong from 2000 to 2004.

Also, Leo Burnett’s exec creative director for Greater China in Shanghai, Ruth Lee, has resigned from the network after nearly a decade there to pursue other interests. Her successor has not been named.

[Shanghai] WPP-owned GroupM has appointed Chan Huang Yee as chief operating officer for China, a new role based in Shanghai. She will develop and implement market development strategies and commercial propositions for all GroupM’s specialist units in China including GroupM Trading, GroupM Insights, GroupM Interaction, Entertainment Sports and Partnerships (ESP), GroupM Business Science and Kinetics. Previously, she was GroupM’s deputy chief financial officer for Asia/Pacific based in Hong Kong.

[Shanghai] R3, an independent marketing consultancy based in Beijing, has appointed Emily Chan as senior consultant in Shanghai. Previously, she was general manager, direct marketing at TNT in Shanghai.

[Hong Kong] Cathay Pacific Airways subsidiary Dragonair has appointed May Lam-Kobayashi as head of corporate communication, responsible for the operation and strategic direction of the airline's network-wide corporate communication. Previously, she was Cathay’s overseas corporate communication manager.

[Taipei] JWT has rehired Eddy Fu and Chang I-Fei as managing director and exec creative director, respectively, of JWT's office in Taipei. Previously, the pair ran FCB’s operation in Taiwan. They will take over positions vacated by JWT’s current managing director in Taiwan, Mark Bainbridge, who is is returning to the U.K., and its current ECD, Black Dawn.

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