The Prince of Beverages: Loyalty: How Quaint

@@img1 The Prince of Beverages
By Greg W. Prince

We live in a multichannel, multimedia, multitasking, multinational world. It should come as no surprise to anybody that the multiple beverage marketplace is as, well, multifaceted as ever.

Yet we always come back to Coke and Pepsi. Maybe you don’t personally, maybe your family or friends don’t, but it remains a touchstone for all those who dive into analogies, metaphors, similes and whatever other kinds of comparisons you can think of.

I’m not going to dispute the effectiveness of this handy yin and yang. Long after Bush and Kerry are gone from the headlines, when the Yankees and Red Sox are not playing big games some October, once both Leno and Letterman have announced their actual retirements, it seems we’ll still be able to point to Coke and Pepsi as our favorite examples of This ‘n That.

Seems that way. But who knows?

Granted, we’re not on our way to a “if this candidate is Aquafina, then his opponent is definitely Dasani.” My hunch is most people would blink cluelessly at that comparison even if those people are slurping one or the other.

This is less about a twilight struggle for cola supremacy (remember, there was a Cold War before there was a Cola War, and you don’t hear much about the USSR these days) than it is the concept of loyalty. It’s a notion that is stretching thinner every day.

I got to thinking about it thanks to a set of articles by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Scott Leith about the heartiest drinkers of Coke and Pepsi in the United States, the towns of Rome, GA (Coke) and Pikeville, KY (Pepsi). Their respective per capita consumption of their brands of choice have historically outstripped every municipality in America.

Leith’s theme is loyalty, especially in corners of the country where it’s off the charts. “It doesn’t have anything to do with taste, as far as I’m concerned,” a marketing professor told him, stressing X-factors like advertising and distribution. The author himself notes, “Those who’ve studied brand loyalty know it’s grounded in what you drank as a child of 11 or 12. That, in turn, probably depended on which local bottler was best.”

Indeed, the loyalty to these superbrands in Rome and Pikeville is extraordinary, but it ain’t what it used to be either. In Rome, renowned among aficionados for its Coke bond, there’s been enough competition-from Pepsi, from private label-and changes in the way business is done via big bottlers and megaretailers to knock it from its perch as the kookiest-for-Coke community to No. 4 in the nation. (Sanford, NC now leads the pack in per caps.) Likewise, Coke has made inroads in Pikeville versus Pepsi.

I guess my question is not how could this happen, but how could it not happen sooner? Not so much in Rome and Pikeville (I’ve never been in either of them) but in the bevosphere in general. Loyalty like those towns display is breathtaking, especially in 2004 when there’s little logical reason for it.

That’s not a knock on either cola by any means. It’s more a comment on the multi-world at large, and the vulnerability of as quaint a concept as loyalty.

Since beverages don’t exist in a vacuum, let’s look at my favorite thing in the house, the TV. Buzz in that industry is crackling over the surprise success of a new ABC show, “Desperate Housewives.” The thinking is people haven’t been watching ABC all that much in recent years. How could it be that the network could find itself with a hit on Sunday night, the most watched night of the week?

My question is, why the hell not? Have you noticed those devices our cable and satellite providers furnish us with to change channels from our couches? My remote control hits the ABC affiliate OK. Yours probably does, too. This ancient idea that people are incapable of leaving one channel to watch another, that people are loyal to a network (or too lazy to use a thumb to see what else is on) is giving the American consumer too little credit for curiosity.

In the last decade and change, the beverage companies we used to refer to as soft drink companies began to give us every conceivable non-alcohol option to pour down our throats. They were inspired by entrepreneurial sorts who were making inroads, and the Big Two in turn inspired others to branch out. The beverage aisles don’t work all that differently from the remote controls we so adore in our living rooms, except maybe for the getting up and going to the store. There are choices. You present enough of them, somebody is going to choose a different one.and they’ll tell two friends.and so on.and so on.

What about habit? It’s a reasonable retort. A writer of whom I’m awfully fond, Roger Kahn, once recounted meeting his father for drinks in the early ’50s. He asked his dad why he chose to order a Manhattan.

“During Prohibition, the whisky was so poor, we all started drinking cocktails to disguise the taste. And it the words of Aristotle, man is a creature of habit.”

Perhaps man and woman have not evolved so much in half a century to completely prove Aristotle out of date. The Coke and Pepsi brands are-understatement alert!-pretty well entrenched in reasonable terms (that is to say for anybody who’s satisfied with something short of total domination) to withstand some erosion. Nobody could have done better jobs.

But there’s going to be erosion. There has to be. There’s too much else to drink. You can be a lifelong Coke drinker, a lifelong Pepsi drinker, a lifelong whatever drinker, but how can you ignore everything else that tempts you forever? Unlike one of the major presidential campaigns, you can’t ask your audiences to sign loyalty oaths.

Ultimately, when all is said, done and returned for deposit where applicable, you’re loyal to yourself.

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