Thursday, 26 February 2015



A Coke Smile and a Milk Moustache


It’s never easy to watch a good friend slosh downhill. Always beloved and up until very recently the world’s most valuable brand, Coca-Cola now seems dangerously doomed, destined to join Kik and Royal Crown in the cola crypt. What a long, strange trip it’s been for the red circle dowager queen since her 19th century pharmacy snake oil formulation. The dear old girl has lost her way.


Coke has long thrived on the legend of Merchandise 7X, a subset of ingredients within its fizzy, sugar-water formula. The fluid is the pinnacle of marketing mystique, above and beyond ’11 secret herbs and spices’ and ‘special sauce.’ As with the Beatles and the Stones, the Canadiens and the Bruins, it’s impossible to discuss Coca-Cola without referring to Pepsi. The cooler-coloured blue opposition has always been a canny and a worthy, worrisome number two. Initially Pepsi offered consumers twice the amount of cola for the same price as a bottle of Coke. Pepsi reached its Rocky apex in 1985 when it caused Coca-Cola to betray inexplicable doubt in its flagship brand and recalibrate its recipe. The result was disastrous and there’s a sense that the company has been a-wobble ever since.


Diet Coke is arguably the most successful brand extension ever. Beyond that triumph and the egg-faced, albeit welcomed, launch of Coca-Cola Classic, there hasn’t been much to cheer about. Coke is needlessly and manically determined to have a brand in every conceivable beverage category. It has a roster of second rate, market-reactive energy and sports drinks. The company had the gall to repackage municipal tap water in plastic containers which cost more than their contents and market the ‘product’ to the people. (It’s worth noting here that the vast majority of American states do not require a refundable deposit on non-carbonated beverage containers. And it would be a mistake to assume that lobbyists for the status quo are employed exclusively by the grocery industry.) A line of chilled coffee-based beverages went over like a cup of Nescafe at a Starbucks. Vitamin infused Diet Coke and a green tea complete with outrageous metabolic claims induced paroxysms of laughter in Washington’s Food and Drug Administration offices.


Coca-Cola and Pepsi (et al) are now being made the patsies for the apparent next phase of human evolution, a sedentary species of obese diabetics. The wolf criers may as well put Microsoft and Apple up against the wall too. Be that as it may, Coke’s counter-strategy is the 2015 roll out of a new brand called Fairlife. Milk. But not just any milk. No, Fairlife will be premium Frankenmilk. Nobody knows dairy like Coca-Cola. The lactose intolerant shrug even as United States Department of Agriculture figures show that milk and cream consumption in America has been in a steady and steep decline since 1975. There is another counter-intuitive and alarming aspect to Fairlife: a national brand of enhanced milk flies in the face of consumers’ current preferences for organic or locally sourced products.

There’s no question that soda sales in North America have dropped off in recent years. But they haven’t plunged over a cliff. A company with more than a century of expertise in selling a useless product should understand trends and cycles in the marketplace better than anyone. The irony is that 1985 is on rewind; deja-vu, Coca-Cola has once again lost faith in its flagship product. Why? Fear of litigation from the fat and lazy? A tort goes better with Coke! More likely, Fairlife milk is yet another ill-fated sop to Wall Street analysts and company shareholders mildly disappointed by slightly diminishing returns. Coca-Cola should stand by its core brand and unabashedly promote the world’s best tasting soft drink. Damn the torpedoes. There is history down south in Atlanta, a Coca-Cola museum for instance. But there’s little forward thinking in head office and seemingly less courage.


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