Your Brand Here ... Like a Tattoo On My Heart


I have nothing but fond memories of Coke (Coca-Cola Company; NYSE: KO) growing up here in Southern California.  Whilst I have never, ever asked for a "Coca-Cola," the way you can hear Rip Torn, that fine American actor, verbalize his need for a "tall Coca-Cola" in the movie Wonder Boys late one night after leaving a Pittsburgh speakeasy with Mssrs. Michael Douglas and Robert Downey, Jr., I have also never asked for a "soda" or a "pop" when I meant a Coke.  

This, I found was (at least it seemed to me) a southern thing when I was in law school in Virginia.  A few of my law school classmates from the Midwest would say they'd like a pop or a "soda," but they wouldn't say, "Let's get a Coke!" unless they meant they wanted a Coke specifically.  Perhaps because my Southern classmates were closer to the cola "Mecca," i.e., Atlanta, than those in mid-western or northern climes, they would generically refer to Coke, subconsciously revealing a reverence, preference or inculcation for the brand from a young age.

Out here on the West Coast, one will routinely hear folks -- good folks, kind-hearted folks with nothing but good intentions -- ask for a Coke when they actually mean, "Let's get a soda, and I'll tell you the specific brand when we get there."  It's a compliment, really, to the ubiquity of the branding done by Coke. Like Kleenex or Xerox, they were/are THE brand associated in their vertical in hundreds of territories around the world.  When we were kids in the Santa Monica Mountains, many of my friends would shout to their moms who were on their way to the grocery store, "Don't forget to get some Coke!" meaning any type of soda was fine, as long as it was in the fridge upon our return sojourn from Zuma Beach 6 (lifeguard tower six).  To give further anecdotal evidence, dispositive to be sure, your honor, I'll submit for your approval that out here on the West Coast, and during my 5 years in Virginia, that not once have i ever heard a generic request for a "soda" by someone who actually said, "Let's get a Pepsi." (or Dr. Pepper, or 7-Up, etc.) Never. I know its a tautology, but I'll repeat myself: not once.  The word Coke has always been a double edged sword for Coca-cola, because the word "cola" was indeed found not to have an owner legally, unless attached to an antecedent "cola war" owner, viz., Coke or Pepsi.

Which brought about a unique re-branding opportunity for Coke and Pepsi at fast food restaurants (many of which were owned through PepsiCo's Yum! Brands).  When ordering a Coke you were (and still are in some chains) offered an oppty to clarify your drink preference at Burger King or others with a required "re-brand" retort, "We serve Pepsi. Is that alright?"  Such clarifications allow brands not to become a generic case-study like "hoover" and "aspirin" or "thermos" and other famous/infamous brands watered down by either abandonement or genericisation (due to an abundant and non-protected use of the TM by non-owners). 

In my time, I always considered Coke to be more conservative, somehow, than Pepsi.  Where Pepsi was for a "new generation," Coke was already "It."  Established. First position primacy over Pepsi for decades and decades and decades.  New guy's gonna have to do something totally different to gobble up and cobble back market share.  Enter Phil Dusenberry (RIP).  His time working for Pepsi allowed them to do just that. Create a "hipper" more progressive cola worldview.  And it worked big-time.  Phil's wonderful read, "Then We Set His Hair on Fire" is well worth the time and effort to find a copy.

Perhaps because I'm conservative, my worldview projections are getting the better of me, but those images of Santa Claus with Coke in hand (going back 100 years) and polar bears with Coke, and other "trad ads" (*did I just create a sub-genre?), I glommed onto their backstory, narrative and that well-crafted Coca-cola created perception of reality.  Is Pepsi liberal because my friends who like Pepsi are liberal or do they (my friends) just not like Coke's image.  Pepsi's new generation tag, evincing a deep push toward the next wave thing, showed the brilliance and flexibility of Phil Dusenberry who not only handled Pepsi, but also handled Reagan's "Morning Again" and his presidential campaign which was extraordinarily conservative (and brilliant -- did I already say that?).  Really wish we had Phil around longer to learn from (like we had David Ogilvy).

Honesty alert:  Because of Coke's sugary influence on my diet, I haven't had Coke in the house for almost 10 years.  I'll let my teenage sons have it once a week when we're out to eat, but never in the house.  It's too easy for them (and me) to knock back a six-pack-a-day.  Hence the "cola wars" became my "gut war."  Still, I LOVE (*using allcaps people) Coke and follow closely their CMO whenever I can watch him pitch at some event or panel discussion, etc.  Like I said, the brand is tattooed on my heart, and the resulting cognitive dissonance is not necessarily excusable, but perhaps understandable.