The Prince of Beverages: Beware early returns

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

The exit polls are coming! The exit polls are coming! Overcaffeinated political junkies nationwide are salivating. After months of picking over the bones of battleground state surveys and popular-vote dry runs, the real thing (not to be confused with The Real Thing) finally shows up on Election Day, so it’s no wonder people who salivate over this stuff-the pros and the fans and the simply concerned citizens-can’t wait for shreds of evidence.

But in the immortal words of Janet Jackson, before her most immortal words were “wardrobe” and “malfunction,” let’s wait a while. It will be difficult to maintain control over the impulse because with blogs to the left and blogs to the right, exit poll info will be leaked all day. Four years ago-2000 election-exit polls weren’t nearly as useful as they used to be. Even all-knowing network anchors didn’t know what was going on, no matter how loathe they were to give that impression.

Early returns, even the most apathetic citizen learned last time, can be inconclusive.

Can the same be said about beverages?

Yes, we are getting around to talking about drinks and such here, but seeing as how Election Day is nigh and I won’t be able to use any of these metaphors or analogies for several Novembers, let me see if we can follow up on this ballot-beverage business.

The beverage angle comes, as many of them do lately, from Coke-Coca-Cola C2, to be exact. The Wall Street Journal published a story on October 20, not even five months after C2 launched, to declare it dead slightly after arrival.

The people have spoken. Haven’t they? Well, it’s more of a sample than weighed in on John Kerry around this time last year when the pundits buried his candidacy and, for that matter, more than were heard from regarding George Bush in New Hampshire in February 2000. Anybody heard from Presidents Dean and McCain lately?

The TV networks relied on finely honed formulas for predicting winners that by ’00 were badly flawed. There are presumably formulas for this sort of thing where beverages are concerned. Backed by a $50 million sceneburst, the conventional wisdom says if C2 was going to make it, it was going to make it right out of the gate.

You know, the way everything and everybody proves themselves right away. The way Kerry and Bush did in their respective first races for Congress which they both lost. We never heard from them again either, did we?

I’ve never been sold on the concept of mid-calorie colas, so I can’t say it’s all that surprising that there hasn’t been a landslide reception for C2 or Pepsi Edge (whose own market share, while steadier, has been minute). But what do I know? What does anybody know after five months? Who knew John Kerry would win Iowa a few weeks before he did? Who knew George Bush would defeat the popular Ann Richards to become governor of Texas in advance of that actual election?

Exit polls are not the final word. Five months of sales figures may not be either.

They call the nascent stages of a campaign retail politicking. It’s the time when the candidates go from door to door and aren’t relying on stupefying TV blitzes to win votes. This is where they establish themselves as serious. Bush had to do it at some level in his career. Kerry had to do it. Why didn’t C2 do it?

Coca-Cola is no third-party movement. It can do what splinter groups cannot. Maybe it should start thinking like a fringe element. If C2 was such a great idea, why wasn’t it dripped out there instead of deluged? Why wasn’t it given spots to prove itself, refine itself and win itself a growing legion of consumers? Is it because it’s a cola and Coke is Coke that that can’t be done? Yes, low-carbmania may never reach its 2003 peak again (in which case, everybody may have been a day late and a dollar short), but why throw $50 million after a fad?

Low-carb and mid-calorie unto themselves may be passing fancies, but the trends driving them-the adult impulse to avoid sugary soda and the inner child that won’t accept diet-are real enough. So why bury a C2 or a like-constructed competitor so soon? Why can’t Coke or Pepsi produce a niche product?

A lot of marketers scratch niches. Many of them are featured on this site every week, and many of those were inspired by beverages that took way more than five months to be declared winners. None of them have to own the world, just an eensy-teensy bit of it.and they don’t have to do it the day after yesterday. If providing low-carb, mid-calorie cola is such a service to mankind, why shouldn’t it be pursued with all deliberate speed? Accent on deliberate. I echo, as I did a few months ago when I was handing out unsolicited advice to entrepreneurs, the SOS Band. Take your time, do it right.

Instead of viewing C2 as a macro misfire, see it as an opportunity to go after in a certain kind of store or one particular part of the country or as a promotional partner to some great-tasting wrap. Often the beverage behemoths sniff at products and categories that are too small to be worth their time. I’ve got news for them. The whole country is made up of microconsumers.

Since there are only a few days left of it being vital territory, take a look at the political terrain of 2004. Except that we are used to using major parties as rallying points, what was macro about this campaign? I mentioned blogs before. There are hundreds of them devoted to politics, and probably little crossover between those that lean right and those that tilt left, to say nothing of those who visit only one type or the other. You could decide to get your news from reliable sources on your side and ignore the obvious biases of the other-or vice-versa. You could go see documentaries that reinforce your opinions and skip the hatchet job films that are no doubt full of it.

And however one chose to see this election season, one could take a break from it and go to a deli or a convenience store and find a beverage to suit one’s tastes, even a beverage that had been around a while but had somehow escaped one’s attention.

There’s no definitive reason that beverage couldn’t still be C2.

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