Commerce Minister Sun Chanthol evoked the late U.S. President John Kennedy on Friday at a seminar about “rebranding” Cambodia that quickly turned into a promotional event for Coca-Cola.
Mr. Chanthol has made it the mission of his ministry to change Cambodia’s image on the world stage ahead of Asean integration at the end of this year. Speaking at the National Education Institute, he told a group of about 600 students that rooting out endemic corruption started with small actions such as obeying traffic laws and properly disposing trash.
“We need to attract investors, and investors need to have confidence. If they see people doing things like this, what will the investors think?” he said.
“I always use this saying of [former U.S. President] Kennedy, and now it can apply [to you]: Ask not what Cambodia can do for you, but what you can do for Cambodia,” he said. “The answer is not difficult: follow the traffic laws and learn English.”
The commerce minister went on to cite the World Bank’s assessment that Cambodia ranked 184 of 189 countries for its “ease of starting a business,” pledging to move up to number 21 on that list by the next count.
“By the end of the year, we will have a new system in place. 184 is not acceptable,” he said, explaining his intent to move business procedures online, thus minimizing opportunities for officials to solicit bribes.
As Mr. Chanthol drew his address to a close, he gave the stage to Cristina Bondolowski, vice president of marketing for Coca-Cola in Southeast Asia, who was meant to give insight on how best to rebrand Cambodia.
Rather than offer any concrete ideas for the country, however, she walked the crowd through the history of her company, boasting that “we serve, every day, 1 billion of these little bottles,” and presenting a slide show with phrases such as “Coke is a symbol of racial harmony.”
Ms. Bondolowski, flanked by big red Coca-Cola banners, went on to say that her company’s main objective was “making lives better” and offered some vaguely constructive advice, such as that marketing and branding are all about playing to people’s “emotional needs.”
“As you can see, we constantly reinvent this icon,” she said, “and that is why the brand is what it is today.”
In 2013, it was revealed that Coca-Cola was indirectly sourcing sugar from plantations in Cambodia found to have committed human rights abuses such as forced evictions and land grabbing.
Asked if she thought it was appropriate that her company had been enlisted to help “rebrand” Cambodia, Ms. Bondolowski said she had never heard about the alleged abuses.
“I can tell you that I have traveled around the world and, knowing the standards and the values of this company, I have very high doubt [that those allegations are true],” she said.