I miss the Cola Wars

Opening the April 2010 issue, executive editor Mary Maddever harkens back to a time of fiercer focus and more bloody-minded leadership.

At strategy’s recent Shopper Marketing Forum, keynote Herb Sorensen observed that too much time is spent on “fixing the stuff that’s wrong” rather than taking care of the stuff that works.

The scientific advisor for TNS’s Retail & Shopper practice was referring to the category management predilection to bolster weaker performers, rather than focusing on moving top brands faster. His premise, backed by studies, is that if it’s easy for shoppers to find what they want, they’re likely to buy more. “The faster you sell, the more you sell. I’ve measured seconds per dollar, and every second longer costs.” He points out that the mass retail move to self-service means that the system focuses on attracting consumers, not selling to shoppers.

The mislaid emphasis on fixing what’s wrong rather than focusing on what’s working arguably extends to other aspects of marketing. For instance, many brands have ambitious digital aspirations, particularly when it comes to reaching youth. No one wants to be left out of cyberspace, so to digitally “engage” youth, brands have embarked on all manner of elaborate social media programs and user-generated contests.

But does it all link back to “the stuff that works”? Not so much. If the fundamentals aren’t covered, digital forays may be more distraction than attraction.
There are a lot of overly optimistic brand status assessments in the digital space. If a brand has an attitude, purpose and place in the retail universe that is laser-clear going in, they can give consumers control with confidence. But not all brands have the authority to go there.

Perhaps the poster child for laser focus and achieving clarity with its associative marketing strategy is the soda category. People aren’t just buying pop, and that’s why Pepsi’s “Refresh Everything” project strikes me as an example of focusing on what’s good. “Refresh” leverages social media to donate $1 million to charities, while tapping into Pepsi’s historical penchant for celeb hook-ups, in addition to newer trends such as crowdsourcing and the current crowd-pleaser, giving back.

Listening to and being led by consumers isn’t a new thing for the brand. Pepsi’s iconic Claude Meunier campaign in Quebec, considered a big contributor to Pepsi’s top cola status in Canada, has been running since the ’80s and came about in response to cultural preferences.

Reading about the heady heights of the Cola Wars in the ’80s (see Tribute, p. 47) takes me back to a time when the world of advertising was fearless and outrageous, and its practitioners had more than a little Spy vs. Spy in their blood. Pepsi’s top secret team in London plotting, scheming and racing to beat Coke to market with its own cherry cola not only scored the “new” coup at retail, they no doubt recharged every Pepsi marketer on the planet. Even more so than blowing up a building just to fire up the Diet Coke/Diet Pepsi rivalry (see p. 50 for more on that).

And it got noticed. A wiki entry on Cola Wars pop culture sightings includes a mention in Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire” and in South Park’s “It’s Christmas in Canada” episode (apparently we were “devastated by the Cola Wars,”) and The Onion wrote about a “memorial” for the jobs lost in the fray. There’s even a Melbourne punk band called Cola Wars.

Although Coca-Cola is number one in most of the world, Pepsi behaved as leaders here and won by taking care of the stuff that works (like the Claude Meunier campaign which, in this age of globalism, is Pepsi’s longest running ever) and by instilling a strong, pervasive focus on retail across the organization.

Maybe fiercer focus and more bloody-minded leadership could help today’s brands stay on course and not be distracted by the tactic du jour, which seems to claim more casualties than the Cola Wars ever did.

Cheers, mm
Mary Maddever, exec editor, strategy, Media in Canada and stimulant