The Prince of Beverages: All the world’s a store

@@img1 By Greg W. Prince

All the world’s a store, and all the men and women merely consumers. That’s the Shakespearean conclusion I’ve reached after reading The New York Times Magazine the last couple of Sundays. It’s not a new feeling, but it’s been reinforced by the examples on which a spotlight was shone.

We were put on this earth to buy stuff. Some of us were put here to sell stuff to the rest of us, but even the sellers have to buy sometime. Are we really all part of some big pyramid scheme, figuring out nifty ways to create wealth but really we just wind up sharing the same pie over and over again?

This is about more than a free-market economy at work. Goods and services are desired, and next thing you know, you’ve got a society. That’s fine. But it’s the creation of, the honing of and the zeroing in on that desire that continues to fascinate.

One of the articles I read focused on a company that helps other companies market to the young. That’s cool as it goes. The young, or at least their parents and guardians, can process information and think for themselves. And the young are not alone in this. I’ve spoken to marketers who talk about how to get their message to the old, the ethnic, anybody who’s not the alleged mainstream (who is mainstream America if not all of us together?).

It’s not evil-it’s business, and I’m not one of those who automatically equates the two despite the best efforts of business’ worst precincts to link them. It is, as those who lack plausible explanations for any given state of being at any given moment, what it is. It’s people with a good or a service looking for more people who might want that good or service. They, the potential customers, might not know it yet is all. We don’t function as bare minimalists in this society, so there’s nothing wrong or immoral with companies striving to fill in the blanks of desire for us.

The other article was about companies (yes, more than one) who work to put what are essentially volunteers, paid in reward points and such, together with new products that the veritable volunteers will, in turn, talk up to their friends, their family, their neighbors, their local merchants, their colleagues, their Buddy Lists. “Hey, didja try this Great New Thing? Oh man, it’s awesome! I just happen to have a couple of coupons for it that I’m dying to give you!”

It’s advertising without advertising. It’s limboing well below the radar. It’s also one of the most bizarre things I’ve read in quite a while-regular civilian types who enlist in the cause of furthering a private enterprise without significant compensation or shared equity in said endeavor. I’m reminded of the no-account Nyborgs, a couple a little too eager to sign up for the land scams perpetrated across “Glengarry Glen Ross”:

“Their check’s no good? They’re nuts?”
“The people are insane. They just like talking to salesmen.”

This seems even loopier. But the Times article offered a rationale for the people who want to act as salesmen, essentially that people are bored and in generating buzz for consumer products they don’t have a stake in, they become a part of something bigger than themselves.

Neither article mentioned much in the way of beverage activity, which confirmed for me once again that this enchanting industry is, as ever, pure and above reproach, offering only wholesome liquid refreshment to a willing populace.

More or less.

Certainly some in beverages have advantages that others don’t, and they press them. What’s the point of having weight if not to throw it around? I’ve also heard tell of unique product placement and aggressive guerrilla marketing and cultivation of youthful opinion leaders and all kinds of non-traditional methods to spread the gospel of gulp. It’s no longer a simple enough field that allows somebody to merely create a great drink, mention it and live happily ever after. I don’t know that it ever was. More power to you as long as you’re not kicking somebody in the stomach (literally, I mean).

I also grasp the desire, however warped, of regular folks to step out of the masses and do their part for marketing. It’s fun to know about something before somebody else does and it’s just plain considerate to pass the word. Plus we love brands. My earliest recollection comes from when I was all of two years old. Somebody was about to take a picture of me and my sister with my grandfather. Wait, I told everybody. I ran into the bathroom so I could pose with a can of Colgate Shaving Cream. (The picture survives to prove this plug.)

All that said, I still believe a beverage has to stand on its own merits, that if it isn’t the genuine article, even the cleverest of hype can’t help. We are not ripe for an invasion of the beverage snatchers, and we’re not particularly susceptible to buzz because buzz isn’t for beverages (save for Buzz Cola, a staple of early Simpsons episodes). Buzz is for saucy spouses who make the cover of Newsweek or endless, indignant whining on talk radio about how bulked-up ballplayers should be ashamed of themselves.

Beverages generate waft, not buzz. Waft lifts gently if determinedly from the shelves and the coolers and the fridges. Waft rises with organic momentum from neat packages and irresistible labels. Beverages win waft when somebody sips and is truly impressed enough to tell two friends and they tell two friends and not because somebody’s telling them to do so. You can plan around who you think will want to drink it, you can decide why they’ll want to drink it, but you’ll never know if you were right until the waft seeks and attains its own level.

The best beverage success stories of the past quarter-century, a timeframe encompassing the most amped-up media market in the history of mankind, have worked that way. I suspect they will continue to do so.

Greg W. Prince ( has covered the beverage business as a reporter and editor for more than 15 years.