While working as global vice president of integrated marketing communications for Coca-Cola, Omar Rodriguez-Vila spent several years living in China in preparation for the company’s sponsorship of the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics.
During his time in China, he learned that Coke had made significant investments to help underprivileged children in rural schools there. “As part of a meeting, I visited a small school and was surprised by the positive impact that company funding was having on the lives of those kids,” he recalls. “I’d worked for the company for many years and never knew.”
Because those community investments fell within the purview of “corporate social responsibility” and were not part of the business plan, they were happening on the periphery of the company, explains Rodriguez-Vila, now an assistant professor of marketing at Scheller College. “They were not thought of as a marketing opportunity that could bridge social and commercial benefits.”
After returning to Coke’s headquarters in Atlanta, Rodriguez-Vila joined a task force charged with integrating sustainability efforts at the company. While Coke had been innovating its manufacturing to reduce plastic waste, it had also devoted resources to empower women in developing nations and train teenagers in Brazil for education and employment, among other initiatives.
“Our team looked at how to use all of the investments to grow the business,” he recalls of the massive effort to account for everything the company was doing within the realm of sustainability and whether the activities affected the brand or bottom line.
But Rodriguez-Vila, who joined Coke in 1996 to lead advertising efforts in Latin America, wanted to dig even deeper into researching environmentally friendly and socially responsible business practices. “When I was working there, I realized I had little time to study why some things were the way they were. I had to move onto the next campaign and chase the next sales target,” explains the Puerto Rico native.
Over time, he realized that transitioning into an academic career would afford him the opportunity to conduct much more research. Already holding an MBA from Northwestern University, Rodriguez-Vila enrolled in the Ph.D. program in marketing at Emory University in 2008, having 17 years of professional experience under his belt.
Rodriguez-Vila joined the Scheller faculty in 2012, attracted by the growing emphasis on sustainability here and the Marketing faculty group’s interest in research that makes real-world impact on how businesses operate.
Working closely with Scheller College's Ray C. Anderson Center for Sustainable Business, he is focused on developing better measures for sustainability that will help companies make business sense of their investments.
“Ultimately, my hope is that such measures will help companies move from seeing sustainability simply as a moral imperative to something that can help drive growth,” he says.
Many companies excel at sustainability, Rodriguez-Vila says, but often at the CEO level or through a sustainability office. “Not many companies are engaged with sustainability at the chief marketing officer level,” he notes.
Companies often think of sustainability in terms of back-end activities, such as reducing energy consumption, but aren’t as focused on promoting those benefits to customers, he explains.
Rodriguez is researching at what points sustainability matters to consumers. He uses Nike as an example of a company that’s innovatively implemented back-end sustainability initiatives. “But in the moment of a transaction, consumers may be concerned more with performance and style than a sustainability message,” he says.
In addition to studying the environmental and social sustainability benefits of brands, Rodriguez-Vila also researches the effect of technology changes (such as social media) on the evolution of integrated marketing communications.
Now in this third year at Tech, Rodriguez is enjoying teaching MBA and undergraduate students Introduction to Marketing courses, in which he incorporates sustainable concepts. He’s also collaborating with Wayne Li, an industrial design professor at Tech, on the development of a new course on product development that maximizes both economic and societal benefits.
“Teaching is one of the most rewarding and challenging things I have ever done,” Rodriguez-Vila says. “I always do my best to give it my all, incorporating lots of discussion.”