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Coca-Cola exec has business advice for Trump and Xi: 'Exchange WeChat accounts'

Key Points
  • Curtis Ferguson, Coca-Cola's president for Greater China and Korea, said communication is only way to defuse the standoff between the United States and China.
  • The U.S. drink maker is trying to boost its market share in China.
Trump and Xi should exchange WeChat accounts to end trade spat: Coca-Cola

The Chinese head of one of the world's most iconic brands has doled out some advice to President Donald Trump on defusing his trade spat with President Xi Jinping: Make like Chinese businessmen and exchange WeChat accounts.

Coca-Cola's president for Greater China and Korea, Curtis Ferguson, said Wednesday that Trump should adapt his leadership style more to the Chinese model and use the messaging app to initiate talks on ending the dispute.

"As all business is done in China, I'd probably suggest they exchange WeChat accounts and get on with this thing," Curtis Ferguson told CNBC's Akiko Fujita and Martin Soong at the World Economic Forum in Tianjin, China.

Trump said Monday that he would be open to direct discussions with the Chinese Premier, whom he "respects," while simultaneously announcing new tariffs on $200 billion worth of Chinese imports. Beijing retaliated in short order, slapping duties on $60 billion worth of American goods.

Those hikes spell bad news for all businesses, Ferguson said. Though he said the soft drink maker has not yet felt a direct effect from the levies, apart from in rising commodity prices.

He also said he hopes the company will be spared from anticipated boycotts of U.S. products by Chinese consumers, as it is increasingly seen as a "local brand."

Adapting to a Chinese model

Coca-Cola has invested heavily in the world's second-largest economy since expanding there 40 years ago. The company now has over 50,000 employees and 45 factories in China, as well as a research and development center in Shanghai — its largest in the world.

Yet Ferguson, who has been running China operations for two years, said the business still has a long way to go. Currently, Coca-Cola has 10 percent share of the country's total non-alcoholic, ready-to-drink market.

"In China, we're well off the mark of where we have to be," Ferguson said. "We have a lot of catching up to do."

That means adapting its product line to meet the fast-evolving demands of Chinese consumers, he said. Last month, the business announced a $5.1 billion deal to buy Costa as part of its plans to sell more coffee, including in China. Meanwhile, Ferguson said it was experimenting with Chinese medicinal recipes to make its health drinks more appealing to local consumers.

His comments come shortly after the Atlanta, Georgia-headquartered company indicated its intentions to expand its health drinks line outside of China, too.

Reports on Monday revealed that the drink maker is in talks with Canadian marijuana producer Aurora Cannabis to develop a drink infused with Cannabidiol. Cannabidiol, otherwise known as CBD, is the non-psychoactive ingredient in marijuana that treats pain but doesn't get you high.

"This is the healthy side of marijuana, not the fun side of marijuana," Ferguson said.