Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Real Thing

The night before I left for college, my boyfriend took me to a fancy French restaurant where we sat uncomfortably dressed up and dined on dishes with names we couldn't pronounce. Afterwards, we walked around the upscale neighborhood in the sticky August humidity of Chicago and shared a bottle of Coke. The stuff of memories.

I watched an interesting program about the evolution of Coca-Cola and how it became one of the most recognized products in the world. Robert Woodruff, the Coca-Cola president for decades, was chiefly responsible for the aggressive and innovative advertising that propelled the soft drink to icon status. Woodruff realized that a soft drink wasn't a necessity; a distinctive logotype in bright red and white, and a unique curvaceous bottle were a good start for branding, but effective ads were critical for its success. During World War II, following a request to, "Send Coke!" from General Dwight Eisenhower, Woodruff set up bottling plants around the world to supply American troops, inadvertently accelerating global sales and awareness of the soft drink.

In 1985, responding to Pepsi's larger market share, Coke changed its carefully guarded secret recipe and launched a campaign for "New Coke." The product flopped, the public was confused and outraged and the debacle is now widely considered one of the biggest marketing disasters in advertising history. The original 'Classic Coke' recipe was quickly reinstated and after the flurry of criticism settled, a vital realization emerged: Coca-Cola was much more than a recipe or mere opponent in the 'Pepsi challenge', it was part of the fabric of American culture, deeply ingrained visually and emotionally in the public, whether or not they actually drank the soda. Coca-Cola represented youth, happy outings with family, innocent first dates, a taste of home to a weary soldier in a foreign land, a winning game, the Olympics, in short-- a better, happier time.

A couple weeks ago, in the season finale of Mad Men, a drama set in the 1960's about advertising in Manhattan, one character said to another, "There are people out there who buy things, people like you and me. But something happened, something terrible. The way that they saw themselves is gone, and no one understands that. But you do, and that's very valuable." Happiness, nostalgia-- it's a serious business.

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