Not A Drop to Drink

Here’s something you probably don’t think much about: what did you used to like to drink as a kid? It’s a strange question, but follow along.

There are two kinds of people in this world. Those who drink generic beverages (e.g. Coca-Cola, Budweiser, Starbucks) and those who seek out the unusual. The latter is in the (obvious) minority, but there’s something about the idea of unique flavors, an affinity for life on the margins, that holds an unquenchable yearn for discovery that “taste-ophiles” can’t resist. Sadly nomadic consumers can rarely satisfy the financial needs of niche brands enough to sustain them. So a lot of cool drinks have come and gone throughout the years that have left a void of variety and even worse, deliciousness. This has become a recent point of contention upon discovering the truth behind the “disappearance” of one of the greatest sodas ever made: Hires Root Beer.

HiresRootBeerLogo

Food and beverage articles are no stranger to Retrobacktive. But in the past they have mostly lent to whimsy and nostalgia. But the case of Hires Root Beer is a tragic tale of deception, intrigue, and “murder.” Take this hyperbole with a grain of salt, but in lesser terms what Dr Pepper Snapple Group has done to Hires Root Beer is a shame. First, because it is (or at least was) arguably the best tasting soft drink on Earth. Second, it is unarguably the longest continuously made soft drink in the United States… but not for long.

Years ago you got cans of sodas from vending machines. You could only get cans. Why? Because bottles were made of glass and would break when released into the pickup bin. They still have vending machines today; they’re soulless and ugly and practically deliver your plastic bottle of liquid sugar in a bow. It’s exorbitant, but hey, things change. Old vending machines carried an air of mystery; their inner workings a secret that magically delivered refreshment at the push of a button. They usually displayed a big banner highlighting either Coca-Cola or Pepsi, and there was always one big button on the machine typically offering one of the two flagship sodas.

Well, here’s some news: never been a fan of cola. What the hell is it? Coca plants? What’s with the caramel aftertaste? Why is it so dry? Coke or Pepsi? Neither. And in fact now as an adult I pretty much hate soda in general and rarely drink it. But there’s something about that brown Hires button on the side of a vending machine that brings back memories of sipping a cold, fizzy beverage on a hot summer day.

Now the whole point of Retrobacktive is to examine those artifacts of the 80s that have gone the way of the Dodo. But this seems particularly cruel. Technically speaking you can still get Hires Root Beer in select parts of the United States. Very, very select parts. Why? Because Dr Pepper Snapple Group is attempting to kill Hires Root Beer via slow, painful attrition. Here’s what happened:

Charles Elmer Hires created the formula for his eponymous soft drink in 1876. Hires was a pharmacist who initially grew his product’s reputation by touting its “medicinal” properties, which was not uncommon for future soft drink makers to do for their “tonics.” Despite his day job, Hires was something of a marketing guru and even found ways to broaden his beverages appeal during the temperance movement, when anything with the word “beer” in it was frowned upon.

HiresOldTime

Hires died in 1937, but the company he founded remained family operated until 1960 when it was purchased by Consolidated Foods. Here is where the trouble begins. From this point on Hires Root Beer found itself the prodigal orphan, bounced around from one home to another. Consolidated Foods sold Hires Root Beer to Crush within two years; Crush was bought out by Proctor & Gamble in 1980; they then sold the brand to Cadbury Schweppes in 1989. When Cadbury Schweppes divested its soft drinks division in 2008 it renamed itself Dr Pepper Snapple Group and Hires Root Beer’s fate was sealed.

The problem is Dr Pepper Snapple already has a famous root beer brand, A&W. Similar to the VHS/Betamax format war, two entities exist that cannot occupy the same space. Dr Pepper Snapple sided early with A&W, but instead of halting production of Hires completely they have slowly “encouraged” bottle suppliers to handle only A&W. So if you happen to live in a part of the country that still has retailers with Hires on the shelves, snatch up those 12-packs (that’s the only way you can buy Hires now), because one by one Dr Pepper Snapple Group is going to infiltrate every bottler to phase out Hires.

Antiquity is an ugly world. Heritage less so, but still rings with a echo of dangerous sentiment, particularly in a culture bred in violence and oligarchy. But we are talking about soda here; it’s relatively harmless.* Detach yourself from the evaluation of traditions and you may still find the little pleasures in life that are worth preserving. A phone call from a friend when you are sad. Fireworks illuminating the night sky in July. A cold can of root beer on a hot day. Countless dalliances that may seem trivial are under seige from social media or groups of overly-sensitive activists. It’s a shame Dr Pepper Snapple Group can’t realize this and consider that perhaps preserving America’s oldest soft drink would be the sort of small gesture that might give the rest of an ever-changing world some healthy pause.

Not to mention it’s the best tasting root beer ever. Sadly now the exiled Atlas of the soft drink world.

* I am aware of the United States’ current epidemic of obesity, and that “harmless” is a relative term. Again, perspective: no one ought to be under the impression that soda and juice are anything more than liquid sugar. If you suck down 20 Cokes a day, on top of candy and french fries and cheese – cheese, cheese, and more cheese; this country is unhealthily obsessed with cheese – you do not have a “disease.” You are just a moron. Please drink responsibly.

The Fall and Rise of Coca-Cola

“[It’s] smoother, uh, uh, rounder yet, uh, bolder… a more harmonious flavor.”

So were the words of Robert Goizueta at a press conference held at Lincoln Center in New York City nearly 28 years ago. At the time, Goizueta was the Chairman and CEO of The Coca-Cola Company. Formerly a flavor chemist with the world’s most famous soda producer, Goizueta knew what he was talking about.

Or at least he sure should have.

Goizueta was describing the flavor of the newly reformulated Coca-Cola, or “New Coke” as it would become more commonly referred to. On April 23, 1985, Coca-Cola did what by any measure today would appear to be pure brand suicide – it took its flagship product, arguably the most beloved soft drink on the planet, and completely revamped it.

To put this into context, imagine… well, herein lies the ludicrous scale of this maneuver: when imagining an indelible brand seemingly beyond the scope of compromise, the mind of even a novice marketer instinctively wants to turn to Coca-Cola. The brand is as much legacy as it is institution, since it’s creation by John Pemberton as a medicinal elixir in 1886 to its rise as the second most recognizable term in the world (“OK” is number one).  Coca-Cola is as synonymous with 20th Century, new world tradition as baseball, hot dogs, and television. To change the formula would be like arguing a pantsuit for Lady Liberty.

Newcokebottle2

Well, maybe not.

To be fair, when Goizueta took over as CEO in 1980, there was a lot for Coca-Cola to be worried about. The Cola Wars were in full swing, and PepsiCo had gained the upper hand. Halfway through the 20th Century, Coca-Cola had held the lion’s share of the soft drink market, but by 1983, it commanded less than a quarter. The younger demographic had migrated to Pepsi, with its sweeter flavor and lifestyle marketing campaigns (Pepsi rarely focused its advertising on its products, instead showcasing who drank them; this was a marketing first and major boon for PepsiCo). Goizueta, an aggressive tactician who abhorred sacred cows, well knew Coca-Cola had to embrace Pepsi as a viable usurper to its throne and meet this challenge head on with a drastic strategy.

Goizueta enlisted the support of Coca-Cola President, Donald Keough, as well as marketing vice-president Sergio Zyman and Coca-Cola USA President, Brian Dyson. An assertive marketing research campaign was launched involving taste-testings, focus groups, and surveys. And overwhelmingly what the results of the campaign showed were that people liked the taste of Coke’s new formula over both Pepsi and original Coca-Cola. Additionally, surveys showed people, for the most part, were open to the idea of drinking the new beverage, even if it were labeled “Coke.” The focus groups, on the other hand, weren’t as unilateral in conclusiveness. A small minority scoffed at the idea of altering Coca-Cola, which sparked peer-pressure resonance within the group dynamic. This, however, was widely ignored. Coca-Cola brass was confident in the taste test results and moved forward with release of “the new taste of Coca-Cola.”

Upon its initial release, New Coke did very well. Sales had risen from the same time the previous year, and surveys continued to show a substantial majority favor for New Coke. Of course, these were major metropolitan demographic results… not the South.

Coca-Cola was born in the Southeast, in the wake of defeat at the hands of the Union. Coca-Cola held a virtually unparalleled reverence throughout the region, and its perversion was considered sacrilege. That vocal minority from the focus groups had found its spawning ground, and from this nest it bred like wildfire. Disapproving letters and phone calls came pouring in. Critics began lambasting Coca-Cola executives for their carelessness in underestimating their customer-base’s loyalty. Pepsi fired back with its own advertising campaign questioning Coca-Cola’s motives. And even internal murmurs of dissatisfaction with the reformulation began to surface, prompting the question of a possible reintroduction of the old formula not even two months after New Coke’s release.

But perhaps no bigger component pressured Coca-Cola’s reversal decision than its own bottlers. Long entangled in a pricing feud – that at the time included litigation – Coke’s bottlers had become increasingly frustrated with the public’s alienation from the company. While Coca-Cola Company made the concentrate for Coke, the individual bottlers still had to produce, distribute, and merchandise Coca-Cola within their respective regions. In the South, this had become a challenge with so many consumers staunchly refusing to buy Coke – if not dump it on the ground in a show of defiance. Facing a major boycott from its bottlers, Coca-Cola had to concede defeat… to itself. The original formula would return to market.

On July 10, less than three months after the introduction of New Coke, Coca-Cola announced the heralded return of original Coke, dubbed Coca-Cola Classic. To say this merely stalled irrevocable damage would be a vast understatement. The return of Coca-Cola Classic rocketed company sales past Pepsi and reestablished Coca-Cola as the dominant force in the soft drink market. This quickly led to speculation that New Coke’s introduction and swift dismissal was an elaborate marketing ploy to reaffirm Coke’s value within the public arena. An amazing conspiracy, if it weren’t for the fact that New Coke wasn’t so readily dismissed.

While multiple product lines has become de rigueur in today’s diversified market, positioning two high-calorie soft drink beverages in a field recently divided by the advent of diet soda was a formidable task in 1985. But Goizueta and his team stood by their new product. It retained only a North American presence, but production continued until 2002 (New Coke was renamed Coke II in 1992). The beverage, however, was largely ignored by both consumers and corporate marketing. The soft drink that had found unanimous acceptance during its test phase died a slow and caustic death.

Despite what was seen as a monumental blunder by one of the most lauded corporations in the world, no blame was cast upon any one individual at the Coca-Cola Company. Simply, there was no one to blame. Marketing researchers have puzzled for years over one of the greatest missteps in free market history – how could a company as infallible as Coca-Cola make such a colossal mistake as tampering with their star product? Well, how did the stock market – with all its fancy, new computer hardware and mathematician brokers – crash only two years later? The Invisible Hand of economics revealed itself as the emotional unpredictability of consumerism during the height of the Cola Wars. If people loved Coca-Cola so much, why were sales down at the start of the decade? No one asked. The epic failure of New Coke was also the sweeping revitalization of Coca-Cola Classic. The power elite at Coca-Cola were happy enough to wipe the sweat off their brows and forget the whole thing ever happened.

Although that’s not entirely true, either. Its universal scorn notwithstanding, New Coke did maintain at least one loyal drinker for twelve years. Robert Goizueta continued to drink New Coke until his death in 1997.

“The moment avoiding failure becomes your motivation, you’re down the path of inactivity. You stumble only if you’re moving.”

Robert Goizueta