Baranowski, survivor of the cola wars, loses battle to ALS

Friends gather this week to remember the life of Canada’s quintessential marketer, Roger Baranowski.

After a three-year battle with ALS, marketing maverick Roger Baranowski, 56, died May 27, surrounded by family and friends. He’s survived by his wife Kathy and sons Joshua and Zachary, who were all at his side to say a final goodbye.

Baranowski was well-known within the marketing community for his strategic savvy and cheeky sense of humour.

“Roger was a character in a world sadly devoid of characters,” says Tony Chapman, founder and CEO of Capital C. “He was from a Mark Twain or John Irving novel.”

Baranowski spoke to strategy earlier this year about the work he did fighting the “red demon,” as Pepsi’s group marketing director in the ’80s and early ’90s. He said wryly of the cola wars: “You’d wake up in the morning and know who the enemy is, and whose life you were trying to make miserable.”

When the “Diet Pepsi Taste Drive” launched in 1988, Baranowski had the first trial pack sent to the president of Coke. When media was purchased, he ensured Pepsi bought the bus shelter outside Coke’s head office. He even went so far as to have the Diet Coke logo painted on a building that was about to be demolished.

After shaking things up at Pepsi, Baranowski went on to become VP of DDB Needham and president of Hallmark Cards, before moving into consulting.

Sheri King, who worked with him at Pepsi’s Bay Street office, says Baranowski made it a joy to go to work. “He loved eavesdropping on conversations with myself and co-worker Debbie Risdon, and would announce from his office ‘I have my big ear on!’” she says. “I worked with Roger, but never thought of him as just a boss, he was my friend.”

King had the opportunity to catch up with Baranowski and his wife last summer at Pepsi’s 75th anniversary in Montreal. “I was upset to see him in a wheelchair, and didn’t know what to say to him, but as I approached him and gave him a big hug, that all subsided because it was the same old Rog,” she says. “We laughed and reminisced and I will always be so thankful for that.”

Baranowski was diagnosed with ALS (also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease) in 2007, but stayed as active as possible. In 2008 and 2009, he taught Strategic Planning at Centennial College, where advertising program coordinator Joy Thorne-Enright says his tales from the trenches made him well-loved by students.

“Roger was passionate about advertising and had the skill of taking curriculum and relating it to industry stories that captivated our students and made them anxious to get their own start in the industry,” Thorne-Enright says. “He was positive, funny, articulate and caring, but most of all, he took the time to make every student feel special. He saw their potential and encouraged them constantly.”

Baranowski’s last words to his son, as cited in his obituary, only served to underscore this positivity: “Crying is good, laughing is better.”

A visitation will be held June 3, 6-9pm, at Humphrey Funeral Home (1403 Bayview Ave., Toronto). The funeral is scheduled for June 4, 1pm, at St. John’s York Mills Anglican Church (19 Don Ridge Rd., Toronto), with a reception to follow.

Friends and family will participate in the ALS Walk on June 6 in Newmarket, ON, and donations to “Team Roger” can be made online. Condolences can also be sent through www.humphreymiles.com.