The Prince of Beverages: Nostalgia ain’t what it used to be

@@img1 By Greg W. Prince

A year has ended. Such an occasion generally calls for a year-in-review. There was a time when I was the king (OK, the Prince) of the beverage year-in-review. I’m terrible at looking ahead, but I’m a master at recall, both of my existence and that of the world-at-large. But looking back isn’t what it used to be. To illustrate this point and to eventually tie it into beverages, I will, well, look back. Way back.

In December 1972, as our family was escaping the cold by vacationing in Miami Beach, I asked my parents for a birthday gift, the kind of birthday gift every kid about to turn 10 wants. I asked for the World Almanac and Book of Facts. I think it sold for two dollars and fifty cents in a Niesner’s on Collins Avenue-it was sponsored by the Miami Herald, which made it a touch exotic. They obliged me. It was the greatest book ever. It had every answer to every question worth asking. It had election results, World Series stats, even this nifty chart of each war the United States had fought and how many veterans were still living or when the last known veteran from a particular war had died. According to the 1973 World Almanac (it even carried the next year’s year!), there was one surviving veteran of America’s frontier wars waged on the Indians. Fascinating stuff, again, the kind of information every 10-year-old craves.

I wanted the next edition the next year when we didn’t go away for the holidays, and I was given it again. I discovered that it was sponsored by a different newspaper depending on the city where you bought it. Somewhere along the way, I stopped asking for it and started buying it myself. It worked its way into my biological calendar. The year is ending? Gotta get the World Almanac. As I went through my teens and twenties and thirties, I depended on it to tell me what I needed to know.

Sure enough, in December 2004, I was in a Barnes & Noble and remembered it was World Almanac time. The price is now $11.95. A newspaper no longer sponsors it. And I bought it for the 33rd consecutive year.

I have to tell you, the 2005 edition of the World Almanac isn’t what it used to be. In order to compete in the Information Age, it has a press time that chokes off all the best stuff. According to WA05, the 2004 presidential election figured to be a close one, the last World Series took place in 2003 and there’s no mention of whether any World War I vets survive (they’d have to be older than 100) or when the last one passed away.

This was disappointing. It was also superfluous. It occurred to me as I flipped through the pages of the 2005 World Almanac that I barely picked up my 2004 edition over the previous 12 months, even less than I did the 2003 edition, which I used even less than the 2002 edition.

Somewhere between the thrill of 12/72 and the routine of 12/04, a little something called the Internet came along and rendered this particular reference book almost irrelevant. (The Almanac tacitly acknowledges its limited utility by inviting its readers to sign up for monthly e-mail updates.)

And yet.and yet, I liked having it. It felt good in my hand. It wasn’t that expensive. I was bound to find something tasty in it. I know I’ll be keeping it next to the dictionary I hardly pick up anymore because I long ago installed a Merriam-Webster CD-ROM on my desktop to facilitate my spelling and definition needs.

I like my World Almanac no matter the toll time and technology have taken. I can’t be the only one-it says on the cover 80 million copies have been sold, and I’ve only bought 33 of them. It’s no longer about data at my fingertips. It’s about nostalgia.

So, to a great extent, is the beverage business. BevNet is a forum for the best of the new, but we never really escape the old, do we? I have XM Radio in my kitchen. It’s got all kinds of music channels that can expose me to all kinds of great, cutting-edge artists and songs that I would otherwise miss. I miss them anyway, because I mostly listen to the ’70s channel. When I hear Billy Paul wail about how he and Mrs..Mrs. Jones have a thing going on for the four-millionth time, I can close my eyes and remember my first World Almanac (goodness, I have strange memories).

Nostalgia is enabled in a mass fashion as never before. A few years ago, the Onion warned that the U.S. would face a nostalgia shortage pretty soon the way the ’80s were reviving and the ’90s were on their way to an early retroizing. Indeed, why ever look ahead when looking back is so familiar and so convenient?

All right, here’s the beverage hook. Some of the greatest brands in the history of the industry wallow in reminiscence, too. Budweiser’s coming out with a flight of “retro cans,” designs that date back decades (church key not included). Miller Lite dropped “Tastes Great, Less Filling” some 15 years ago, but some variation of the slogan manages to pop up in its advertising every few campaigns. Pepsi, generally the most forward-looking of the classic trademarks, dusted off a pre-Generation logo to sell a Christmas cola, Holiday Spice. And Coke is always trading on being Coke, not the Coke of today, but the Coke of anytime between the 1880s and the early 1990s. Santa Claus is old Coke. “Real” is old Coke. The Polar Bears of a decade ago? Not new Coke (or Coke, new).

It’s fun. It’s delightful. It’s comforting. And it’s not just beverages. Other brands in other industries have equities that outlast their useful lives and then haunt them into eternity or at least until something new about them becomes more vital and more relevant to their consumers. That is the challenge for the behemoths of beverages in 2005 and 2006 and 2010 and for as far down the road as you care to project. These brands are among the biggest in their fields. They’ve made more history than the rest of us will ever know. Their goal must be not to become history or simply trade off of it until they are history. In 2005, we will keep watching for new beverages, but we’ll never take our eye off the old ones and the new tricks we wait to see from them.

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