THE PRINCE OF BEVERAGES
By Greg W. Prince
@@img1 I just came from a conference full of beverage executives and a room full of smart people. I mean no insult to the beverage executives when I tell you these were two separate stops.
The beverage executives were intelligent, articulate and very thoughtful about the field, don’t get me wrong. It was my intention to write primarily about what I heard from the men and women who attended Beverage Forum 2004, the annual en masse industry brainstorm presented by Beverage Marketing Corporation and Beverage World magazine in New York City. And I will, in greater detail, in future dispatches.
It’s just that I met some more important beverage people after leaving the Waldorf-Astoria. I met some beverage consumers. None was a geek, an obsessive or a raging bevhead, three appellations I’ll gladly apply to myself. But regarding the great questions of the beverage day, let’s just say their glass was more than half full.
Here’s the deal: I smuggled a bottle of the not yet commercially available Coca-Cola C2 and a can of the similarly pre-launch Pepsi Edge out of the Forum. When I say smuggled, that implies there was some real clandestine activity surrounding a daring, bold maneuver. In fact, Coke and Pepsi were kind enough to provide samples (as they’ll be doing for millions any minute now) and there were some left over. However, I once heard that cloak-and-dagger stuff adds a patina of intrigue to a story, so there ya go.
Anyway, I transported the mid-calorie contraband several blocks north to a senior center. Not just any senior center, but the one where my wife, Mrs. Prince of Beverages, works. It was lunchtime and I thought she and her colleagues might enjoy a carb-conscious cola chaser to their institutional lasagna.
I miscalculated on two fronts: 1) Staff was enjoying a delightful taco salad for lunch, a donation from the church that hosts the center; 2) My wife’s colleagues didn’t enjoy the opportunity to try the new sodas. They embraced it.
Not two hours earlier, some of the best analysts in the business were gathered at the Forum mulling consumers’ diminished thirst for carbonated soft drinks and the lack of innovation that allowed apathy to trump excitement. At the senior center office, excitement was the order of the moment. My wife’s three co-workers-we’ll call them Ricky, Phillip and Mary Ann because those are their real names (I’m not much good at changing names to protect the innocent)-took me up in a large way on my offer of a sample. C2 and Edge were soft drinks they’d heard something about even if they couldn’t recite from memory the strategy behind mid-calorie positioning and all the stuff that the marketers were worried about.
It wasn’t the first time I’d poured a new release for civilians, but the reaction always takes me aback. People are juiced by soda. Conferences may be devoted on how to win back volume for carbonates and the magic margins they bring to the bottom line, but to hear regular folks talk, you would never know there was a problem. Given just a little spur, they’ll go and on about soda-theirs, yours, everybody’s.
We had some C2. We had some Edge. There was no strong consensus that one was much better than the other or that either was great or terrible. I don’t know that there was suddenly a low-carb, mid-calorie consumer born among these two women and one man of varying ages and backgrounds. This wasn’t about a taste test. This was about stirring up something deeper.
Ricky, Phillip and Mary Ann got to talking, talking about soda. Granted, the Prince of Beverages was in the room and since they like my wife, maybe they felt the need to humor me. But I don’t think so. With little prompting, the three of them popped to with all kinds of pop observations and pop questions.
“Boylan’s is really good. They sell it across the street.”
“My favorite is still regular Coca-Cola.”
“Diet Sprite is great.”
“I really like-what’s it called? Mystic River?-no, Sierra Mist!”
“The soda they sell in Europe is too lemony.”
“Nothing beats ice cream and root beer.”
“I just don’t like diet soda.”
“Whatever happened to clear Pepsi?”
“I heard there’s prune juice in Dr Pepper. Is that true? No? But there’s Pepper in it, right?”
“When I was kid, we’d pour Red Hots into ginger ale. Now that was spicy.”
“Did you ever try Skittles in Zima?”
I can honestly say I’ve never tried Skittles in Zima. I can also say without fear of failing a polygraph test that I never get tired of beverage talk. I thought that was just me and my professional cohorts. Goodness knows a “will mid-calorie work?” buzz permeated Beverage Forum for two days. But you don’t need a conference ID badge to join the conversation. That’s why sites like this one thrive, that’s why all the hum about flat soda sales doesn’t diminish the inherent sparkle this category had, has and will have to work awfully hard to truly lose.
Greg W. Prince (firstname.lastname@example.org) has covered the beverage business as a reporter and editor for more than 15 years.