Cheerwine -- the bubbly, wild cherry-flavored soft drink that's an institution in the South -- calls itself a brand on the move, with a plan for 100% national distribution by its 100th anniversary in 2017.
Based in Salisbury, N.C., Cheerwine parent Carolina Beverage Corp. is the oldest continuing soft-drink company still owned by the same family (the Ritchie family).
The soda is sold in North Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia, Delaware, Maryland, Tennessee, Kentucky, South Carolina, Alabama, Georgia, Florida and California. Outside of the Carolinas, it is distributed primarily by Pepsi, a partnership that is enabling its geographic expansion, reports Tom Barbitta, SVP marketing and sales for the brand.
In addition, Cheerwine’s original formula (sweetened with cane sugar and sold in glass bottles) can be found in specialty stores in all 50 states, and both formulas are sold online.
Since early 2011, Cheerwine has been running a multimillion-dollar campaign, from New York-based agency Woods Witt Dealy & Sons, touting the brand’s having been a soft-drink “Legend” since 1917. (Tagline: “Born in the South. Raised in a glass.”)
In the Southeast, radio ads featuring true “tales” from Cheerwine fans -- for instance, a serviceman who carried a glass bottle of Cheerwine in his backpack throughout his tour in Afghanistan, drinking it only as he was boarding a plane for home -- are one key component. As part of a partnership with best-selling indie rocker group The Avett Brothers (North Carolina natives and big Cheerwine fans), Scott Avett has also voiced a series of radio spots. Other traditional media used by the brand include out-of-home and 15-second TV spots.
Social media and word of mouth are particularly critical in driving awareness and trial for Cheerwine’s expansion, as well as relationship-building with existing fans, says Barbitta. Cheerwine’s “authenticity, passion and purpose,” in addition to its unique flavor, are its core differentiators from the giant soft drink companies with which it competes, so it’s all about “getting people to discover us,” he says.
Staying “real” is the guiding principle behind all of the brand team’s engagements through Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest, according to Barbitta. “We don’t want to sound corporate, because we’re not corporate, in that we’re not driven by EPS and traditional Wall Street financial measures,” he says. “At the same time, there’s no reason that a brand like ours can’t play on a larger, national stage.”
“Legendary Giveback” Concert
Giving back to the community has always been central to the brand’s values, and this year, those efforts have focused on a new initiative called the “Legendary Giveback.”
The centerpiece of the initiative was an Oct. 19 charity concert by The Avett Brothers, held in Charlottesville, Va.
All proceeds from the event went to Big Brothers Big Sisters, Operation Homefront and the University of Virginia Children’s Hospital.
Fans who couldn’t attend the event were encouraged, through the brand’s site, Facebook page and other social channels, to pledge some hours of volunteer time to one of those charities (or a charity of their choice) – with pledges rewarded with exclusive Livestream access to the live concert.
As an added incentive, Cheerwine promised to reward the U.S. town that pledged the most hours by hosting concert viewing parties in that town. It also threw viewing parties at college campuses around the South, organized by its standing army of college-student brand ambassadors (called “Cheerwine Czars”).
Livestream access to the concert was also made available (no volunteer pledges necessary) to U.S. military bases around the world, and the UVA Children’s Hospital.
Additionally, Cheerwine has been using social/online to promote sales of “Legendary Giveback” T-shirts, and a Deering Banjo signed by The Avett Brothers was put up for bid, with proceeds from the sales/auction also going to the charities.
Post-concert, the buzz has continued through a montage video documenting the event, including backstage footage of the band, as well as thank-you’s/shout-outs about the event from The Avett Brothers to their fans on their official site and Cheerwine’s Facebook page.
Among the event’s results: 4,700 people attended the sold-out concert; more than 12,000 in 17 countries Livestreamed it; and more than 2,000 pledged over 30,000 volunteer hours to charities. Plus, nearly 28,000 entered a sweepstakes tied into the event, which offered a grand prize of a VIP trip to the concert and a meet-and-greet with the Avett Brothers, as well as other prizes including pairs of tickets, Giveback T-shirts, posters and Cheerwine coupons.
In addition, Cheerwine attracted more than 18,000 new Facebook “likes” and Twitter followers. (It currently has nearly 103,000 “likes” -- versus about 67,000 as of the start of its Legend campaign in April 2011 – as well as some 2,400 Twitter followers.)
Also speaking to the initiative’s success in generating national (and global) exposure: Residents of Portland, Ore. – not currently one of Cheerwine’s mainstream distribution markets – pledged the second-largest number of volunteer hours. (Bristol, Tenn., came in first.)
Not surprisingly, Barbitta says that Cheerwine’s hope and “vision” is to continue the “Legendary Giveback” concept next year and beyond (specifics are still being worked out).
Meanwhile, the campaign and Cheerwine’s social and live outreach efforts will keep rolling. Barbitta says he spends a lot of time at colleges, both because he’s asked to speak on marketing and because the interaction opportunities help keep the brand’s social media and other initiatives fresh.
Cheerwine sponsors events like an annual “Miss Cheerwine” contest (the winner travels around the Southeast as a brand and media-relations ambassador).
Barbitta notes that makers of several movies and TV shows have recently opted to include the soft drink to heighten the authentic ambiance of the productions’ Southern settings. One example: ABC’s hit show “Nashville” will feature the soda in select episodes, simply in exchange for Cheerwine’s donating product.
With the holidays coming up, Cheerwine’s latest moves include establishing a Cheerwine Club that lets fans gift friends and family with home deliveries of the soft drink over three months; and a Cheerwine Christmas card designed by a third grader at a local North Carolina school. Proceeds from sales of the cards will go to the school and other charities.
Cheerwine also sends out uncounted numbers of gratis bottles of the soda, branded T-shirts and other items on an ongoing basis, especially in response to “constant” requests from military men and women, says Barbitta. “Cheerwine is a small piece of home for them, and we’re honored to be able to provide that,” he says.