How I Helped Coke Win The 'Cola War'
Thirsty? Wait Until You Finish This Story Before You Get A Soft Drink!
In the late 70’s and 80’s, it was ‘the’ war to end all wars. Not a war fought with military machines and personnel, but with soda pop. Yes, soda pop. This ‘war’ was fought between the two biggest soda-producing companies in mechanized history: Coca Cola and Pepsi. It was fierce, let me tell you. You couldn’t turn on a television, radio, read a newspaper or magazine, or even enjoy the countryside when you went for drive for the numerous billboards that lined America’s highways with advertisements from Coca Cola and Pepsi--each one yelling, “Drink me!” “No, me!”
Coca Cola, the established ‘cola champion,’ was now being challenged by another American icon, Pepsi, and it was on, as the young people say in 2011. The ‘cola war’ was fought for one reason: to secure more customers and reign supreme as America’s Cola, Cola Cola or Pepsi, whichever company came out on top.
I will make my personal testimony short, sweet, and to-the-point. I love Coca Cola with a passion. It’s not because I have anything at all against Pepsi, or all the other cola companies in our country, it’s just that Coca Cola appeals to my personality, lifestyle, and taste. Plain and simple. No static or vague phrases. And no gray area for you to ‘read between the lines.’ I am Coke man. And started out as a Coke boy when I was first introduced to this tasty mixture in the tender year of 1959, at the age of six. My mom, dad, and I were returning home one Saturday from Hamilton, Alabama, where dad paid our bills, and decided to stop into this quaint-but-busy country store called, Rye’s Grocery. This establishment was just begging for noted artist, Norman Rockwell, to come--with paintbrushes and easel, and give America a taste of “true Americana,” in one of his paintings that graced the cover of The Saturday Evening Post.
Dad wasn’t long in Rye’s Grocery. He came back to the car with a mischievous smile on his face. I soon knew why. He was holding a bottle of ice-cold Coca Cola behind his back to give to me. What a treat! I will never forget the cool liquid going down my parched throat and sending me into a state of happiness that until then, I had only dreamed of. My mom told me that she didn’t want any, but that was “mom code” for ‘Yes, I’d like a sip of that Coke,” so I did what any red-blooded American son would do…(after a few minutes of selfish debate with myself), I gave the rest of my Coke to mom. And dad got into the act by finishing off the rest of my Coke. I was so happy to even get a Coke (for a nickel in 1960), that I saved the bottle for years at our home in the rural part of Hamilton. I treasured the flowing words, Coca Cola, that were in white on the side of the small bottle. Every time from that time on, when it was bill-paying time, I would beg my dad to stop at Rye’s Grocery for another Coca Cola.
From that certain Saturday in 1959, June to be exact, to this day, Monday, Aug. 22, 2011, my love affair with Coca Cola has been one of the richest relationships that I have ever had in my life. I give you my word. Coca Cola is a part of me. And will always be a part of me. Don’t ask me to break-down my thinking into some elevated sociological verbiage, for I can’t. It’s just that Coca Cola, who by the way, IS NOT paying me for this endorsement, and I “hit it off” and we’ve never had one cross moment. Well, I take that back. I did get upset with Coca Cola only once. When some higher-up at Coca Cola Development decided one day, for no reason at all, in the summer of 1985, to ‘change’ the delicious formula that had made Coca Cola the best cola in the nation. Yeah, that was surely genius thinking alright. Some junior executive wanting to make big with his uncle who hired him to keep him off the streets, pulled what was one of the biggest boner’s in history: CHANGE what was already working great and do what after it was change? Who knows, because as soon as the so-called New Coke was introduced to the country, enraged customers jammed Coke’s phone lines with complaints. What a huge mistake the New Coke was. Immediately Coke began recalling hundreds of thousands of bottles, cans, and tanks of New Coke. Whewww, the Coke executives sighed. “The worst is over,” they added.
Then something just as strange happened. The Coca Cola company gave the Coke fans something called, Coke Classic, which essentially, had the same taste and flavor as the Original Coke. Or did it? Even with his face-saving maneuver, there were people, who had been loyal to Coke for generations, jumped like rats on a ship in a storm, and went over to Pepsi. Wasn’t too long before these same ‘fair-weather’ fans came back, but Coke didn’t gloat. Or rub their noses in their bad decision. Oh, yeah. I wasn’t one of the people who deserted Coke. I remained loyal, vigilant, and dedicated to keeping Coca Cola on the lips and minds of everyone I met.
Are any of you old enough to remember the famous Pepsi slogan, “Now it’s Pepsi, for those who think young,”? And this one that captivated the beach-going, one-piece-bathing suit wearing (by the girls), and portable radio appreciating, teen’s who practically lived on the beach, “It’s the Pepsi Generation,” come on and join us! I never did join them. I hated the beach. And I wasn’t that big into Frankie Avalon, but if Annette Funicello had winked at me, I might have become a Pepsi disciple, but I stayed loyal to Coca Cola.
You do see what Pepsi was doing? Going after the the teen market which was growing by leaps and bounds while Coke charged forward to the sports world and became “the official” drink of MLB (Major League Baseball), NFL, (National Football League) and even sponsored a car in the then-Winston Cup NASCAR events that ruled the summer. Coke didn’t have anything to prove. Their names were already associated with little league teams and their ball fields, Friday night high school football when the concession stands only sold Coke, and Coke’s name was seen a-plenty on banners behind single-engine planes flying over tanning, frolicking people in Daytona Beach, Miami Beach and Destin, Florida. This was how Coca Cola became the ‘cola giant’ that they are today--massive amounts of advertising even as far back as World War II. Coke was present with the boys on the front lines. Honest, straight-forward and 24/7 advertising campaigns and gimmicks helped to forge Coca Cola’s name on the lips of most all Americans young and old alike.
Pepsi didn’t take this lying down. Pepsi countered the massive ad campaigns with a new, easy-to-manage, aluminum can that cost less and saved Pepsi millions in production. Was Coke impressed? Not at all, for they counteracted with their own red, (one of our nation’s colors) aluminum can Coke product. Fans loved it.
Pepsi had bigger dreams to fulfill. With some innovative-thinking, Pepsi came back to the market with something new. Something unusual. The 2-liter plastic bottle of Pepsi. Was America happy at this invention. Coke was probably walking the CEO’s floor in anxiety at Pepsi’s new-wave thinking. Until now, people of both companies had been accustomed to having their Coke or Pepsi in a pretty-colored can or glass bottle. Coke had to make a move. Fast. And they introduced their own 2-liter plastic bottle of Coke to the world and not too long after that, hit Pepsi hard with the first 3-liter bottle of Coke. But Pepsi wasn’t one to give up easily. Pepsi started flooding the market with a new Pepsi flavor. It was the same Pepsi taste, but with no caffeine for those who are into improving their health. Then Pepsi unveiled Pepsi One, Diet Pepsi, and the hits just came on coming.
Then it was Coke’s turn to introduce smaller plastic bottles of their product and then gave us, Coke Zero with no calories or sugar. What a day for America. Two of the biggest soda companies competing and giving new meaning to free enterprise.
Did you realize that early in the forming stages of both Coca Cola and Pepsi, besides the television advertising, painting their logo’s on barn roofs and store buildings where their products were sold, that both Coke and Pepsi manufactured and had storeowners give away thermometers with their distinctive logo’s at the top of the thermometer? I have seen electric clocks in restaurants with the Coke or Pepsi logo in dead center of the clock’s face. This was a clever idea. The advertising departments at Coke and Pepsi knew it was human nature to look at a clock to see the time, so why shouldn’t the customers see Coke or Pepsi’s name? Keeping the company name on the minds of citizens. In advertising terms, this is called ‘branding.’ And it has worked well for both soda companies.
Celebrities such as Brooks Robinson, (MLB, St. Louis Cardinals), Willie “say hey” Mays, (San Francisco Giants), and ‘Mean’ Joe Greene, of the Pittsburgh Steelers in the NFL, became spokes-celebrities for Coke while Country Music stars like the late Dottie West recorded a version of her own hit, “Country Sunshine,” and then re-recorded it with this lyric, “a Saturday night dance, a bottle of Coke, and the joy that a bluebird brings,” only added to Coke’s huge popularity.
Pepsi wasn’t to be outdone. They paid ‘the king of pop,’ the late Michael Jackson, half-million dollars for a thirty-second television ad where he came moving down stairs while sparks were flying around him. It was in the filming of this ad that Jackson received severe burns on his head and people talked about this freakish accident on up until his untimely demise. Pepsi, once upon a time, used “America’s poet,” Johnny Cash’s voice-over for a series of television ads showing true-American pastimes such as rodeo’s, truck-driving, and other outdoorsy events. And the ideas for Coke and Pepsi go on and on to see who has the best cola. Even in 2011, the ads now running show both Coke and Pepsi ‘going head to head’ with the two fictitious drink truck guys eating lunch at a out of the way cafe and a song comes on the jukebox. The Coke driver says, “Good song.” The Pepsi driver agrees, “Great song,” and puts the Coke driver’s photo on You Tube as he tries the New Pepsi with 0 Calories. The same two soda truck drivers are seen in a place reminiscent of Walmart, trying to out-build each other with their Coke and Pepsi canned drinks in boxes. Then we see rap star, Snoop Dog floating up the Pepsi driver’s pyramid and the store employees, including the Coke driver are dancing to the music in the ad. It was their own business, but wasn’t Pepsi taking a chance in public relations by paying Snoop Dog, a rumored user of drugs and gang-related activities, to be their lead man in the ad? I guess America has a short memory and a blinded heart.
Enter my other favorite drink: RC Cola, short for Royal Crown Cola. This soda, started out in bottles found in rural grocery stores, and when I drank my first RC, it tasted so good…almost, I said almost, as good as Coke. RC Cola has been around for as long as Coca Cola and has survived the ‘cola wars’ by maintaining their own balanced advertising outlets that bring them a more-than-stable amount of customers. I like RC Cola. And when I cannot find nothing better to drink, (if Coke isn’t sold) nothing hit’s the spot better than a cool, crisp RC Cola. And yes, even RC joined the soda thermometer ad campaigns by having RC Cola at the top of their own thermometers. Still, RC Cola is still in the game. Big time.
I am not going to be to naïve as to write that there are “the big three” of cola’s: Coke, Pepsi and RC Cola, for there are brands like Seven-Up; Sprite; Mountain Dew; Mr. Pibb; Dr. Pepper owned by either Coke or Pepsi. That is how powerful that Coke and Pepsi companies are.
I guess I am too old for my age, 57. I can easily recall other brand names of sodas with names like Fresca; Sun Up; Ginger Ale; Tab; Upper Ten; Double Bubble; Frosty Root Beer and more who have made big contributions to the evolvement of the soda industry in our country--which is not just an American icon anymore, but worldwide markets feature Coke and Pepsi most anywhere food is sold or not sold. Just look the next time you are traveling abroad and it won’t be hard for you to see the red Coke signs or the red and blue Pepsi signs. This should make you feel right at home.
Where is the ‘cola wars’ going? Where will it all end up? Again, I don’t know.
What I do know is that sometimes when I am reminiscing about my younger days, I revisit that certain Saturday in June, 1959, in the parking lot of Rye’s Grocery and I have to believe that with that one sip of Coca Cola, and my lifelong devotion to this marvelous beverage, I would love to think that I helped Coca Cola hold their own in the ‘cola war’ of the late 70’s and 80’s.
Can you think of any reason that would prove me wrong?