ShowSouth is honoring one of Atlanta’s own, Bruce McDonald of Coca-Cola, with its 2019 “Statesman of the Year” Award. A 20-year veteran of The Coca-Cola Company, McDonald was vice president of strategic partnership marketing from April 2010 until April of this year, when he was named vice president of the Subway global account team. Earlier during his Coca-Cola tenure, he led the company’s relationship with Atlanta-based Chick-fil-A. He is a former board member of the Georgia chapter of Variety – The Children’s Charity, and is president of his Neighborhood Lake Association—and a registered wilderness guide in the state of Maine. In this exclusive interview, McDonald looks back on his rewarding career with Coca-Cola.
How much of your previous job was taken up with movie theaters?
As vice president, strategic partnership marketing, I led a portfolio of entertainment and travel partners, with one of the partners in the theater space being AMC Theatres. For nine years, I led the team that maintains our relationship with AMC—both domestically and anywhere that AMC has global reach. They are owned by Wanda in China, and AMC bought theaters from Nordic Cinema Group and Odeon/UCI in Europe. Along with that, I led other teams—airline partners, hotel partners, cruise ship partners, etc. Since 2017, I was the global cinema channel lead for Coca-Cola, which meant that in addition to the AMC responsibility, I led a team that had oversight for all we do across the industry. My team led our relationships with organizations like ShowSouth, NATO, Film Expo Group, and multiple studios. We would be responsible for developing and executing research that provided insight to the cinema channel and also developing programs with studios that could run across all cinemas in the United States.
What kind of research would that be?
We would do a variety of different types of research, but largely consumer behavior and/or consumer needs within the theater space. For example, every couple of years we look at how consumers are buying tickets, interacting with food and beverage, etc. We might look at how and why consumers would smuggle or share food and beverage within their cinema experience—with the result of trying to provide insights to theater companies about what they can do drive incremental foot traffic and revenue for their own food and beverage platforms. Why were they doing that? What would stop that? What would make the offer better so theaters could make more money? Things along those lines—everything from how consumers interact with theaters to how those insights could lead our partner theater owners to drive their business.
Did your work also involve tying in Coke to specific movies and movie promotions?
Yes, absolutely. That’s what I’m talking about with regard to the relationship with studios. We could do that specifically for AMC, but as the leader of the cinema channel, we also work with different movie studios to get the rights to use their iconography on cups and bags. We can create a program to run in all theaters across the United States, maybe rewarding consumers with special content or prizes. We regularly do three or four big programs like that a year. These programs benefit the studios, our brands, our theater partners, and ultimately the consumer as well. It’s a win-win.
Are there any you can recall that were particularly fun for you?
Some of the stuff we’ve done in the last couple of years with the Star Wars series has been great. And The Avengers too. Working with different studio partners has been really fun—seeing big blockbuster programs come to life in theaters has been so rewarding.
It seems that the very definition of Coca-Cola has expanded because there are just so many drink options now available in theaters. What’s been the fastest-growing segment?
We have always been more than Coca-Cola soft drinks, but, more recently, we have a renewed focus with our new leadership on our total portfolio of beverages. One of the best ways to demonstrate the total portfolio of beverages is via the Freestyle machine. Go into almost any AMC theater, and you can experience a Freestyle machine, which have now close to 200 different flavor options and combinations across sparkling brands, still brands, low-calorie, and no-calorie. In addition, we have many great brands and products that have connected with the consumer and cinemagoing experience, from brewed teas to bottled water, agua frescas, and alcohol combinations like frozen Jack and Coke. Those are some of the things that have taken off and done really well.
You spent some time in China.
Yes, I did a short-term assignment for a couple of months in China. I was really there for a couple of reasons. One of the reasons was that Universal Theme Parks was a partner within my portfolio. And by definition, that means I’m also connected to Universal Studios. Universal is building a theme park in Beijing, a massive $5 billion investment. I was over there to help our business unit negotiate the rights to be the sponsor of that park and also help the business unit there with their growing food-service business. And part of that business is cinema. Cinema is a hugely growing industry in China. And so, of course, I had the chance to interact with Wanda very closely while I was there, but also work with some other theater partners in that space in that big, growing market.
Will Subway be doing any movie tie-ins?
Subway has already done some great movie tie-ins. They did one with Aladdin this spring. We didn’t have a role, but now that I’m on the Subway team, I look forward to taking the relationships I’ve had across the cinema industry, both with exhibitors and with studios, to find some ways with Subway to really delight consumers. I’ve already started to think about integrating things like movie passes as prizes for consumer promotions with Subway.
What has the transition to the Subway group been like for you?
It’s, like anything, a baptism by fire. I had to jump into our relationship with Subway. They’re in a hundred countries around the world. We’re in at least 80 countries with them around the world. And so it’s a global role, but there’s a whole lot going on in the United States. They have 24,000 restaurants in the United States. It’s the biggest restaurant company in the world by number of locations in both the world and in the United States. So there’s just a lot going on to try to reinvigorate our business with them. They’ve had some business challenges, and so we’re trying to help them grow their business. I had a great team on AMC; I had a great team in the people who lead the cinema channel. Coke is so connected in the cinema space that the team behind me has been able to pick up where I left off and not skip a beat.
Can you talk a little bit about your relationship with the people at AMC over those nine years?
I absolutely loved working with them. While we were two separate companies, we could work together to figure out what was important to both of us and find a mutual win. And they are just some phenomenal people who have had lifelong dedication to the cinema industry. They’re excellent operators, fantastic marketers, wonderful collaborative partners to work with. I built some relationships there that I hope and expect will last the rest of my life beyond my direct role with them. I’m very grateful to them for taking me under their wing and teaching me about the industry, letting me grow while I worked with them, giving me experiences and letting me work across their global system, not just the U.S.
What are some of your favorite movies?
I love what I would call action tragedies. So I love movies like Braveheart, Gladiator, Last of the Mohicans, Legends of the Fall—huge, epic action stories that fortunately or unfortunately also involve some real drama or tragedy. Historical fiction is a strong interest of mine. I’d also say The Godfather I and II.