The Birthday Brand Learns To Run

THIS MONTH, A BIG SHOUT-OUT GOES  to Coke’s trade magazine publicity team, which managed at the last minute to remind me that five years ago the company launched Coke Zero. As the parent of a 5-year-old myself, I know how important it is to brag about them as they grow.

And oh, how Zero has grown, having captured more than 1 percent of U.S. CSD market share and sold more than 100 million cases. Now, it’s true that my kid has sold a lot of lemonade to old ladies in the neighborhood, but even he doesn’t have that kind of pull-through.

But, it did take a while to get the whole thing right. Fact is, when Coke Zero was just learning to walk, Coke’s marketing unit nearly offed the brand, sticking its hands into the vacuum that used to be G. Love’s career via a poorly-executed paean to the company’s seminal “I’d like to buy the world a Coke” ad.

But somehow, in a demonstration of rare agility, Coke managed to rebuild the brand’s momentum behind a slightly subversive, under-the-radar series of viral commercials featuring brand managers and lawyers. It was the equivalent of taking a underperforming but well-bred colt and switching trainers, and the new approach let the brand learn to walk, gradually realize its speed, and finally, take off.

Looking back at the course correction that defined the early days of Coke Zero led me to think about some other brands that have managed to stay flexible enough to pull the fat from the fire. Certainly, we’ve seen other solid course corrections with big company brands like SoBe Life Water and Dr Pepper via carefully redirected marketing and innovative flavor extensions, respectively.

On the smaller company side, there have been some exciting examples recently, as well: O Water, for example, recently completed a deal that will allow its founder, Tom First, to market and guide the brand while offloading some of the company’s cash and infrastructure concerns to powerhouse distributor Polar Beverages. Bossa Nova, a struggling superfruit juice company, has been able to locate a scalable business model now that it has come under the control of Sunny D, itself a pretty interesting turnaround story. Reed’s managed to turn flagging DSD performance into a grocery focus that continues to pay off.

The similarity between those last three companies is that they were all led by doggedly innovative CEOs or founders: aside from First, both Alton Johnson and Chris Reed have refused to give up, even if it has meant moving the target a bit.

For Coke, however, the target was always a blockbuster brand. Few companies have the resources to try to implement multiple media campaigns until something works. But when you’re dealing with an innovative entrepreneur, it’s a good idea not to count a brand out – or kick it off the shelves – if you recognize the driving force behind it.

This month, we’re looking at the energetic force of acai, a berry – and a product category – that has also faced some major obstacles in its development. Like Coke Zero, the acai berry’s potential quickly got ahead of it’s depth – it lost traction like Coke Zero, the marketers behind acai products are relying on creativity to get them through the next set of growing pains. You’ll read about Johnson and his chief competitors, Sambazon and Zola, in our juice focus.

Additionally, we’ve added a bit of flexibility to one of Beverage Spectrum’s long-standing features this month, taking Brands in Transition and expanding its scope to include a number of companies as part of our Cooler Check-in department. Under the stewardship of new Assistant Editor Miriam Lamey, we think you’ll find it to be a neat guide to companies who are on the cutting edge. Some will be finding their feet, some will be starting to run, and some will be starting over. As we’ve just learned, that last option might not be the worst one at all.