Of the “World’s Most Valuable Brands” identified by Forbes magazine, only one out of 10 prides itself with a century’s worth of history and heritage. The said brand is no less than the iconic Coca-Cola, known to people around the globe not only by its cool crisp taste but also by heart as part of their daily lives.
In the Philippines, Coke remains to be the top beverage of choice among Filipinos, whether as a thirst quencher or as part of their meals. Yet, while consumed by almost everyone, only a few can say they know and appreciate the painstaking steps that go into the making of every bottle, every can, or every “litro,” as we say in the Philippines, of this century-old soft drink.
It is therefore timely that The Sunday Times Magazine toured the plants of Coca-Cola Femsa Philippines in the towns of Sta. Rosa and Canlubang, Laguna, where the journey of this beloved beverage begins. Besides revealing a precise science to every bottle made, a beautiful story of how Coca-Cola touches the lives of many was also unravelled.
From the biggest to the fastest
Coca-Cola first arrived in the Philippines in 1912, fully penetrating the local market in 1927, thanks to its first-ever bottler in the country, San Miguel Brewery Inc.
Since then, so much has happened to the history of Coke in these islands, including ownership. Today, Mexico-based franchise-owner Coca-Cola Femsa manufactures, distributes and sells the soft drink in the country. What remains unchanged is the beverage’s taste and popularity.
Of 19 plants spread around the country, Coke Sta. Rosa is the largest one, occupying a total land area of 35 hectares.
There, towers upon towers of bottle palettes—containing besides Coke, sister brands like Sprite and Royal and the local Sparkle—greet every visitor.
Returned to the plant for refilling, what happens next is a thorough cleaning of the glass bottles with state-of-the-art equipment before it is filled, capped, and inspected once again for standard check.
Moreover, the Sta. Rosa plant is the only Coca-Cola facility in the entire nation that produces the canned variety. It is for this very reason that motorists are greeted giant cans of Coca-Cola, Sprite and Royal True Orange at the Sta. Rosa toll booth, long considered a landmark at the South Expressway. (And for those who have always wondered, the giant cans are filled with water and not the soft drink brands splashed across each one).
According to Cat Avellino, external communications and CSR manager manager of Coke Femsa Philippines, every soda variety they produce is composed of 90-percent carbonated water combined sweeteners and natural flavors.
Of course, the beverage is brewed fresh at the plant by expert, as well as microbiologists and chemists. There are even taste-testers who make sure that every batch tastes exactly like Coke before the world-famous carbonated drink is poured inside the bottles.
Now if Sta. Rosa is the company’s biggest plant, Canlubang, on the other hand, is home to Coke’s fastest line, not only in the country but also in the whole world. It is capable of producing an astounding 81,000 thousand bottles per hour, bringing the plant’s capacity to over 265 million physical cases from the previous 170 million.
The plant also focuses on PET packaging, or plastic bottles, in contrast to the Sta. Rosa plant that refills returnable glass bottles. Coke’s PET bottles are made from scratch in-house as well.
So important was this line’s completion in 2014 by the way, that no less than President Benigno Aquino 3rd graced its inauguration along with top Coca-Cola executives led by Chief Executive Officer Juan Ramon Felix.
“We have a wide array of facilities—from the very modern like this one in Canlubang, to the very basic that has been operating for around 60 to 65 years,” informed Juan Dominguez, Coca-Cola Femsa corporate affairs director.
Lives improved by Coke
Right after the plant tours, the Coca-Cola Femsa tour took media guests to the nearby distribution center where Coke products are then sent out to different sale centers including greater Metro Manila, and as far as the island of Palawan.
The center caters to major outlets like department stores and fast food chains, as well as humbler locations across the Philippines, in the sari-sari stores and carinderias.
In Laguna, a good number of storeowners receive Coke products to sell straight from the nearby plants. Many of them have inspiring stories to share about being in the “soft drink” business just like Carmencita Pabrua.
Pabrua, 48, owns a combined sari-sari store and carinderia at the outskirts of Coke’s Laguna Distribution Center. Before putting up her humble livelihood, this single mother had difficulty making ends meet as a hired cook at another eatery, earning P150 a day for years.
“Naisip ko, paano ko mabubuhay ang mga anak ko sa ganoon [I asked myself, how can I provide for my children with my job],” she recalled.
Taking the leap of faith, she left the eatery and started selling snacks in the neighborhood. She also pawned her only piece of jewelry—her wedding ring—to put up the money for a sari-sari store.
In 2009, she was able to build her dream store with Coke as one of her major products. Eventually expanding her business with a carinderia, Pabrua now serves her specialties to locals and employees from Laguna’s industrial sector. In the area, if you want a good home-cooked meal paired with an ice-cold bottle of Coke, you go to Aling Carmen’s food outlet.
According to the very industrious lady, Coke products make up to 40 percent of her daily sales. She orders 35 to 40 cases of products every other day.
Considered a top and loyal seller by Coca-Cola Femsa, Pabrua enjoys the full support of the company in the form of refrigerators, tables and chairs branded with Coke.
“Natupad ang mga pangarap ko sa pagbenta ng Coke [My dreams came true selling Coke bottles],” said the humble entrepreneur who now has other businesses including apartment rentals and a small auto shop.
Indeed, Coca-Cola values its relationship with its sales partners, market and employees.
As Dominguez enthused in the press conference that wrapped up the tour, “Many families that operate sari-sari stores consider their main source of income selling soft drinks—about 40 to 45 percent of their sales like Aling Carmen come from our products. This if I may say so shows our value in the very basic economies in our country.”
Besides this, Coca-Cola Femsa also takes pride in employing 10,000 direct and indirect workers all across the country.
“We have 19 plants around the country [and in]many places we are considered the main employers. In places like Zamboanga and Tacloban communities will say that Coke is part of the life of their towns,” Dominguez added.
“The secret formula of Coke is the people. We are, as you know, a company that is controlled from Mexico, but 99 percent of our employees are Filipinos,” the executive continued. “From 2014 to 2015, we were the biggest generator of employment in the Philippines [with]2,200 new jobs at entry level. And we touch the lives of Filipinos across every single place in the country. We are the very few companies that are able to do that.”
As such, every Coke can reads at the bottom, “Produced for you by the happy workers of Coca-Cola Femsa Philippines.”
True enough, many pioneers of both the Sta. Rosa and Canlubang plants continue to stay with company since the day they were hired.
“Most companies will say that people are the main assets of their companies. We do not consider them assets. We consider them the center of our organization,” Dominguez said.
The journey of Coca-Cola will never be complete without the sweet ending—consumption. Today, this is further heightened by the brand’s latest global campaign dubbed “Taste the Feeling.”
According to Dominguez, Taste the Feeling, unlike previous campaigns, returns to spotlight Coke itself.
“Taste the Feeling brings Coke as the main actor of the campaign. It’s directed around tasting the brand, and generating a feeling around that,” the executive enthused.
“Moreover, the concept comes with what we call the ‘one brand.’ Whereas we understood before that Coca-Cola, Coca-Cola Light, and Coca-Cola Zero are different brands, the new commercials simply show them all as Coke.”
Besides the new campaign, Coke Femsa also introduced two new packages. The first is the 237-ml glass bottle called Timeout, and the 300-ml PET bottle called Mismo for on-the-go drinking.
Timeout is sold at a P7-price point, and has effectively helped the company boost sales; while Mismo, tagged at P10 has become an alternative to returnable bottles.
“We have a portfolio of products that fit the needs of the Filipino consumers. We have the Timeout and Mismo for small servings. And in terms of multi-serve, we have the ’Kasalo’, which is 750 ml, at a very good pricepoint,” concluded Dominguez.