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History, Pariotism & A Savvy Sacrifice From Coca-Cola Over 70 Years Ago

Updated on July 21, 2013

Coca-Cola Marketing Lessons

In this world of people who seem to increasingly seek a quick solution to everything, it’s important to understand the value of sacrificing today for the future. We want a pill to lose weight today. We want a stain remover that removes stains immediately and doesn’t require scrubbing. We want immediate returns on our investments and even the large corporate management of today seems to be interested only in the short term. Our politicians have learned that promising a quick fix to problems is the way to get votes over a more beneficial long-term approach. No one wants to wait and no one seems to want to sacrifice. This is the problem for many entrepreneurs of the day. Many of them can’t seem to understand the value of investing in their people via training or providing customer service today in order to reap the benefits tomorrow. We want a sales promotion today that provides increased sales today---not always something that builds for tomorrow!

Decades ago Coca-Cola and its leaders took the long-term approach that sealed their fate and commanded unbelievable loyalty for decades to come. In fact it insured the fact Coke would remain unchallenged as the number one drink in the world. Indeed Coca-Colas investment and long term approach would conjure up the “warm fuzzies” one might say, for American servicemen for decades to come. Curious yet?. . .

As I relay this story it comes largely from the research and book of Mark Pendegrast, author of “For God, Country and Coca-Cola”. At the beginning of World War II, Coca-Cola enthusiastically and passionately promised the country that every U. S. soldier (no matter where they were) would be able to buy a bottle of Coca-Cola for a nickel:

One Of Many Ads Through The War Years


“We will see that every man in uniform gets a bottle of Coca-Cola for five cents, wherever he is and whatever it costs our company.”

Do you realize what an ambitiously wild promise that was at the time? Coca-Cola had a very limited market overseas in those days. According to Mark Pendegrast, author of “For God, Country and Coca-Cola”, the soft drink maker had been running afoul of military shipping priorities during the early war and was criticized for using a massive transport ship to get Coca-Cola to Australia at a time when there was a critical need for guns and planes. As a result Coca-Cola had already begun experimenting with the idea of shipping Coca-cola concentrate overseas to be bottled there.

In order to achieve its promise, Coca-Cola would not only need to build plants at strategic locations around the world, they would actually need to create dozens and dozens of mobile bottling plants in order to keep up with military troop movements around the world during the war. They created mobile plants that could be manned by as few as 2 people and could provide up to approximately 1300 bottles of the tasty drink an hour. As a result, Coca-Cola had bottling plants on every continent but Antarctica as well as a very tight relationship with our federal government and general Dwight D. Eisenhower. In fact prisoners of war during World War II were also used to work in Coca-Cola bottling plants. The Coca-Cola Company was also given a status of “technical observer”. This designation was created during World War I for civilians who were needed in the war effort. In his book Pendegrast states, “Incredibly, it appears that technicians who installed Coca-Cola plants behind enemy lines were deemed as vital as those who fixed tanks or airplanes. The Coke representatives wore Army uniforms with “ T. O.” as a shoulder patch. Each coke man received military rank commensurate with his Company salary, leading some wags to nickname them “Coca-Cola Colonels”.” The author goes on to state that general Patton regarded a cache of Coke as a necessity, making sure the T.O.’s transported a bottling plant wherever he went.

“Today was such a big day that I had to write and tell you about it. Everyone in the company got a Coca-Cola. That might not seem like much to you, but I wish you could see some of these guys who have been overseas for twenty months. They clutch their Coke to their chest, run to their tent and just look at it. No one has drunk their yet, for after you drink it, its gone; so they don’t know what to do.”Private Dave Edwards, 1944, in a letter to his brother from Italy

Now while Coca-Cola was making their super size marketing move into the rest of the world, they didn’t neglect the good ole U.S.A. While a number of other products in the U.S marketplace were often criticized for attempting to milk the patriotic angle and tie them to their products, Coca-Cola was not. Coca-Cola had become such a recognized theme and part of the American experience, that nothing it did could seem offensive.

There have been a number of collectable books about Coca-Cola memorabilia over the years. One of the best is the Pendergrast’s book, which easily makes one aware that many marketing pieces and products were produced by Coca-Cola during the war years. To appeal to children fascinated by the war, Coca-Cola sold thousands of copies of a “Know Your War Planes” booklet for a dime. With minimal advertising, “Our America” pamphlets were distributed to junior high students to educate them on the U. S. lumber, coal, steel and agricultural industries. Coca-Cola also distributed playing cards, Chinese checkers, dominoes, cribbage boards, dart-boards, bingo and many other games items with military themes and of course the familiar Coca-Cola logo. Coca-Cola also hired over 100 name bands to play concerts around the country at military bases while Coke was served. Signs and trays linking our war efforts with Coca-Cola were produced in overwhelming quantities and freely distributed everywhere.

Now Coca-Cola was not motivated by patriotism alone. Coca-Cola knew that their effort would make their drink more popular then ever, both at home and overseas. Foreigners liked the taste of Coca-Cola and servicemen returning home after the war, brought home a definite preference and warm heartedness for the drink that had meant “home” to them overseas. According to the author of “For God, Country and Coca-Cola, “a 1948 poll of veterans conducted by American Legion Magazine stated that 63.67 percent specified Coca-Cola as their preferred soft drink with Pepsi receiving a lame 7.78 percent of the vote.”

A Couple Of Marketing Lessons From Coca-Cola

Two things from this story really matter here. One is that you’ve got to take the long term approach with your customers. What is best for them? Your point of view must be to help your customers by doing what’s best for them, even if in the short term it means losing a sale. Help your customers make good purchasing decisions, rather then being focused on getting the sale. Coca-Cola wasn’t too worried about getting the sale when they committed to helping servicemen get a Coke for five cents, “wherever he is and whatever it costs our company.” For the long haul, there's got to be more to business than just a transaction. You’ve got to make sure that the interaction between customers and your business and its people is an experience and not just a transaction. Making a business transaction an experience can make all the difference. Creating that experience may also mean some short-term sacrifices in profits, in time and in thought. I guarantee you that when a soldier in North Africa had a Coke placed in his hands while on the front lines, he had “an experience” that would serve Coca-Cola for decades to come. This “experience” is what helps build a strong relationship between a business and a customer. Marketing studies have born out very often, customers (your customers) are willing to pay more for a product and/or service if they have a personal connection with your company. (I talk about this in much greater detail in my book, “ A Line Out The Door”.

Taking the long-term approach works and it must be incorporated into whatever your short term plans are. Too many retailers believe that you worry about today only, especially when you’re struggling to survive and establish yourself. But from the very beginning of your business, you’ve got to think about the great expanse of time ahead of you and try to make sure that you’re planning for that in a way that’s going to leave you ultimately proud and satisfied. Then regardless of what happens, you can feel good about your efforts and actions.

Marketing Of Some Type Must Be A Part Of Your Efforts

The other element of this story is to understand that your company needs marketing in one way or the other. To be successful (first and foremost) marketing matters and the marketing side of your business must be melded into your efforts in one way or the other.

It really doesn’t matter if you’re a neighborhood ice cream shop or a global company like Coca-Cola. It is a business essential, whether it’s handing out coupons or creating a multi-million dollar campaign to be launched on Super Bowl. The question for your business should never be “if” you should market, but how, to whom, and in what media.

New & Numerous Marketing Options Today

The great news for your small business is that we now have more options than ever. Years ago, direct marketing, traditional advertising and PR, were the big three (3) in marketing. You could add to that the tactics that have come to be known as “guerrilla marketing,” These were my options as a small retailer back in the eighties. Today the internet has changed everything. Your new weapons in the fight are the new marketing arsenal now includes blogging, e-mail, social media, e-mail marketing video marketing, mobile marketing and much, much more. The other important question for your business is not: should I launch a social media campaign, or some guerrilla marketing tactics, a small business approach to PR, a customer loyalty program or whatever. The question you’ve got to do some serious soul searching over is, how do I take my business and effectively combine all of these tools in a way that can be successful and affordable for me.

A Plan, Even For Your Business

To do this, keep the lesson in mind from Coca-Cola. There must be a long-term approach as a part of any of your marketing efforts. While a small business cannot afford to be spending good advertising money on brand building, you still need to consider the long-term relationship with your customers. Start with an offer to your customers. Give them a reason to visit your business today! And then combine it with a clear message based on who your target customers are and what you want your business to be, for them. This means creating your own strong brand and defining clearly who you’re going after. Write out your short-term and long-term goals. Define your target market. Study where and how your market and customer base find their information.

Then work to develop a strong marketing approach and a marketing plan, no matter how amateurish and low budget you might consider it. It needs to be a living and breathing approach that will change and adapt as your market and your needs change. Review your budget, study the various outlets. An affordable approach that works for just about any company is a combination of some basic PR, blogging, some guerrilla marketing tactics and possibly trying your hand at a little social media and article marketing. Focus on each one of these and others independently, such as e-mail marketing, direct mail, and couponing. Then take a look at how you can combine them and use them to work together.

In Conclusion:

You can do this, especially if you enlist some professional help in the areas where you know you need help! Every business and business category obviously brings with it unique needs, but you’ve got to have a plan. With some real soul searching and some serious thought, you can develop a long-term plan and promotional blueprint that will work as a roadmap to build and grow your business.

I believe this bold long term move on the part of Coca-Cola during World War II ended up as one of the most astute marketing moves in the history of business. And even today, Coca-Cola is still a bold marketing organization. Below is one of my favorite marketing quotes which came out in the form of a publicity handout from Coca-Cola. It simply said the following:

“A billion hours ago, human life appeared on Earth. A billion minutes ago Christianity emerged. A billion seconds ago, the Beatles performed on the Ed Sullivan Show. A billion Coca-Colas ago was yesterday morning.”

Do these guys understand marketing and building a name or what?


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    • RetailRich profile image

      RetailRich 5 years ago

      Can't help you. I know nothing of book values, just Coca-Cola items.

    • profile image

      R Elizabeth Landis 5 years ago

      I have an original copy of Know Your War Planes and am curious if it worth anything.