Coca-Cola, Shelf Space And Contential Longitude

In 1985, I was invited by the executive management at McCann Erickson to run Coca-Cola's national broadcast buying group. Pepsi had signed pop singer Michael Jackson ("Billie Jean") as spokesperson, and its market share was skyrocketing. For the first time in the cola wars, price and volume were giving "the event" drink a run for its money. Blindfolded, I was ushered into a meeting room. The first words I heard were "I had a dream." To my surprise, we were in a room full of Caucasians -- and the dream was to successfully launch a "new" Coca-Cola, sweeter, like Pepsi, to wup the upstart. To accomplish this feat, all we needed to do was to hire the right spokesperson -- Dick Clark was a consideration -- to maintain the soft drink king's market hegemony. The taste of the "new" cola didn't seem to be of particular interest to any of the conspirators. Sweeter, like Pepsi, was enough for them.

A few months later "New Coke" launched. Almost immediately it fizzled. Flat-lined nationally, shortly thereafter -- forever relegated to regional status. And then, on July 10, my birthday, corn syrupy Coca-Cola Classic made its first regal appearance - on the broadcast networks' evening news. I remember that day clearly: my team and I were tasked with making sure that the ABC, CBS and NBC national evening news programs did not air without the Classic Coke introductory commercial, which was being flown from Coca-Cola headquarters in Atlanta by low-flying helicopters -- under the radar, so to speak -- to each of the network news origination points. We were given sufficient bribe money to hold the doors to the news rooms open until the commercial arrived, and were told that no greater sacrifice could be made for our agency.



For the next few months the press seemed preoccupied with divining the entrails of what appeared to the New Coke debacle. Was it a failure or a brilliant ruse to introduce a new Coca-Cola soft drink -- one that has maintained its market leadership for years to come.  My team and I were forced to sign an NBA -- a non-betrayal agreement, so I can never tell. However, what interested me most about listening to the debates internally by the client as well as agency personnel about that cola war was the ultimate verdict: the maintenance of shelf space. Some say that the introduction of New Coke allowed the soft drink manufacturer to garner more shelf space in supermarkets, and thereby, enabled them to prevent others from encroaching on its territory while fresh troops arrived.

This episode in my advertising career resurfaced in reverie while I was contemplating all of the new distribution agreements signed by the major media companies and their broadcast networks in recent months -- particularly in place-based media. Every day another distribution announcement hits the newsstands: gas stations, airlines, cruise ships, supermarkets, amusement parks, malls, hotels, bars, path trains, taxis, schools, auto dealers coupled with current broadcast channels, digital terrestrial channels, video on demand platforms, streaming video, Web sites, portable media players, home video, wireless devices....  Personally, I was surprised that no one has deployed an application that masks toilet flushing with marketing jingles.

As all of the major media companies, particularly national broadcasters, focus their attention on distribution, how will their content -- whether looping, sound bite, short or long form, and in many cases repurposed -- really maintain their distinctive flavor in the market? If the content goes flat, so goes viewership, no matter the shelf space.  This will leave the networks vulnerable to sampling of other offerings and migration of advertising revenue to alternative fountains, i.e., as in the case of the colas: iced teas, water, and fortified vitamin drinks.

Next story loading loading..