Drinkin’ Problem

Thanks to social media, product advertising is a complex challenge these days. Hiring an “agency” no longer suffices, at least not for major corporations. They depend on “brand builders” instead – Interbrand, for example. Interbrand boasts “…a global team of thinkers and makers [encouraging] bold moves to leap ahead of customers and competitors.” Interbrand also values the companies they help build. On their list, well inside the top ten: Coca-Cola.

My brothers and I gathered in Atlanta last week for a semi-annual reunion.  Our initial stop wasn’t Coca-Cola’s world headquarters but rather, its popular “World of Coca-Cola” tour.  If you haven’t walked through these doors, Coke has turned an impressive three-story building into a glittery three-ring circus to promote its products, with a side of historical context.  As if Coke needs more promotion.  The genius of this soft drink, as we learn on the tour, is the relentless, boundless effort to put Coke’s brand everywhere imaginable.  Cans, clothing, and cars, just to name a few.  But pixels?

Here’s a weird suggestion.  Go into your home laboratory, create a flavor, and label it something that doesn’t have a flavor.  This is Coke’s latest go-to gimmick to retain market share.  Coca-Cola Zero Sugar “Byte” has come and gone (limited-edition products are another way to retain market share) and you probably didn’t have a taste. And what does “data” taste like?  According to drinkers it’s pretty much the same as Coke Zero, adding in the sensation of the old “Pop Rocks” candy.

Coca-Cola also developed “Coke Starlight”, somehow determining the taste of “outer space”.  Drinkers said it tasted like Coke with an aftertaste of cereal milk (ewwwww).  Go to the store today and you can purchase the latest of these curiosities: “Coke Dreamworld”, which has been described as “Coke soaked in sour peach rings” (ewwwww again).  As the saying goes, there’s no accounting for taste… or should I say, with Coca-Cola there’s no caring for taste.  Instead, the bottles and cans promote music, videos, and other products through a QR code.  And there’s the branding concept in a nutshell.  You’re attracted to the purchase because it’s a Coca-Cola product, but the draw is anything but the drink itself.

I shouldn’t be surprised how far the taste of Coke has, uh, evolved in the one hundred and thirty years since its market debut.  The variations on the original formula are myriad, including Cherry Coke, Vanilla Coke, Diet Coke, and “Coke Zero” (no added sugar but plenty of artificial sweeteners).  Let’s not pretend any of these drinks are actually good for your consumption.  But at least vanilla and cherry are tastes we understand.  Dreams?  Not so much.

“Dreamworld” and the other recent flavors target “gamers and younger audiences”.  My brothers and I saw a lot of kids on the “World of Coca-Cola” tour so maybe the advertising is working.  Regardless, Coca-Cola has a bigger challenge to confront.  Sales of soft drinks are on a serious decline, in favor of bottled water and healthier options.  Coke recently cut its portfolio of soft drinks by fifty percent (bye-bye Tab) in an effort to improve its bottom line.  To me, that’s a sound business strategy.  But flavors that aren’t really flavors?  That’s desperate.

Coca-Cola had a big red flag in the 1980s (appropriate color, no?), one that should’ve discouraged future dabbling with their products.  Who among you doesn’t remember the debacle of “New Coke”? The flavor variation – the first in Coca-Cola’s long history – debuted to rave reviews, with claims it was better than Coke or Pepsi.  But here’s what Coca-Cola didn’t see coming: consumers immediately defended the original flavor.  Instead of buying New Coke, they cleared the shelves of the original flavor for fear it would go away forever.  Begrudgingly (and very quickly), Coca-Cola returned the original flavor to stores under the name “Coke Classic”.  But New Coke never found legs and eventually disappeared from the shelves altogether, while “Coke Classic” returned as simply “Coke”.

” Coke Dreamworld”, as you would expect, features prominently in the “World of Coca-Cola” tour.  The flavor that isn’t a flavor, along with a silly 3-D movie and a giant retail store, targets the youngest of consumers.  But let’s be honest, most people go on the tour for the tasting room, where they can sample Coca-Cola’s products to their heart’s content.  “New Coke” is not among those choices.  Pretty soon I don’t expect to see any flavors-that-aren’t flavors either.

Some content sourced from the CNN Business article, “Coke’s latest bizarre flavor is here”, and Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

Sugar Cured

Coke. Zero. Sugar. Three little words; one new drink. In a nod to those who eschew sugar (and detest calories), Coca-Cola proudly offers its latest beverage. Coke was the original, of course. Coke Zero was the low-cal offering for men (Diet Coke was perceived as a “women’s” drink). And now the soda junkie may opt for Coke Zero Sugar, with the claim of original taste but no calories and no sugar.  For my money, let’s hope the sugared varieties still have a shelf life.  Otherwise my cure for headaches just went out the window.

Coke cures headaches?  Well, why not?  Those of us who experience the recurrent forehead fevers will jump on just about any bandwagon to chase away the relentless pain, and a Coke seems relatively harmless compared to the more potent options out there.  But truth be told, a can of Coke is only half the solution.  Chase the Real Thing with a Snickers bar and you have the coup de grace of headache cures. The combined overdose of caffeine, sugar, salt, and protein packs a punch more powerful than half a bottle of Excedrin tablets.

When I was a kid, headaches were my constant companion.  I could sense the pain unfolding well before it up and knocked on my forehead door.  In full bloom, my headaches could only be cured by retreating to a dark, quiet room and sleeping them off.  But try falling asleep when someone’s rapping a hammer against your brain.  The mental/physical anguish of the battle surely coined the phrase “toss-and-turn”.

My mother and my doctor (seemingly one and the same) drew frustratingly repetitive conclusions.  My headaches were not strong enough or persistent enough to prescribe migraine medication.  My headaches were likely brought on by “not enough of this or “too much of that.  Not enough sleep or not enough water.  Too much sun or too much sugar.  Too much sugar?  And now I’m promoting a headache cure with sugar as an essential ingredient?  Sorry Mom – it works.

At one point in my life my headaches were so bad I believed I could generate one by merely thinking about them.  My mother used to say, “don’t get too excited; you might get a headache”.  Ironically, her good intentions were dashed by the very mention of what she was trying to get me to avoid.  But the conjuring really did happen – on more than one occasion.  Think about a headache = get a headache.

Headaches are attributed – at least in part – to dilated blood vessels.  (Dilated blood vessels are attributed to way too many conditions to list here.)  The brain’s response to dilation is to summon a pain companion; a vehicle to announce, “something’s wrong”.  You see, for all its intelligence the brain lacks its own pain receptors, so it seeks another part of the body to act as its surrogate.  Enter: the headache.  Fascinating perhaps, but no fun for the recipient.  There were times I would’ve traded all of my worldly possessions (which admittedly didn’t amount to much) in exchange for the removal of headache pain.  On that note, I don’t want to even think about how a migraine headache feels (after all, I might get one).

Forty-five million Americans suffer from some form of headaches.  Thankfully, I’m no longer a member of that vast club.  Whether from corrective eye surgery I had as a teenager or better control of the “not enough of” or “too much of”, the pots-and-pans forehead pain endured as a kid simply doesn’t visit anymore.  I’m very thankful for that.  I’d like to think I’ve done my time with those miserable toss-and-turn episodes.  But as a former Boy Scout, I know it’s wise to be prepared.  If my brain gets into a “for old time’s sake” mood, I’ll have a can of Coke and a Snickers bar at the ready.

Refining Buy-Products

Let’s chat about your last visit to the gas station (assuming you don’t own a “plug-n-play” vehicle).  Chances are you hit the pumps in the last week or so.  If you’re like me you drove in and drove out, mindlessly fueling to be on your way again as fast as possible.  But lately I’ve learned there’s more than meets the eye as you fill-er-up.  We’re all unknowingly playing the great retail chess game known as dynamic pricing.

Here’s the drill.  My local Shell station asks me a lot of questions before I get my first drop of unleaded (which makes me crazy but what choice do I have?)  Cash or credit?  Rewards Program number?  Zip Code?  Car Wash?  Paper Receipt?  All that info is “pumped” out of me (ha) up front.  Even then I must choose the octane before I finally get what I came for.

Now here’s the rub.  Every one of those data points feeds a Watson-like computer somewhere far removed from the gas station.  Watson brews a big customer-transaction stew, mixing in time-of-day, day-of-week, gallons purchased, and even weather conditions.  The result?  The “optimal” price point, delicately balanced between a) what you the consumer are willing to pay and b) what the supplier wants to net.  It’s a price-per-gallon computation that changes as many as ten times a day.

Coca-Cola may get the credit for the advent of dynamic pricing – with soft-drink vending (almost 20 years ago now).  Coke added a heat sensor and a computer chip to their machines, and as the outside temperature increased so did the cost of a soda.  Bad taste, and bad decision.  Consumers figured out the game and raised a big stink.  The running joke at the time – maybe not so funny today – was Coke would next install a camera to determine how much change was in your pocket.  Pepsi seized the opportunity to lure the unhappy customers and Coke quickly dropped the techno-gimmick.  But dynamic pricing took hold and never looked back.

Dynamic pricing is easier to digest when it targets times or situations where customers don’t notice or don’t even care.  The better example is school supplies.  Towards the end of summer your local Wal*Mart or Target will deep-discount pencils and paper and the like, often as much as 50%.  Kids will flock to the sale and load up on everything they need.  Parents will give their receipts an approving smile.  But guess what?  The store still wins.  That’s because “impulse purchases” bagged up with the school supplies are priced slightly higher than usual, more than offsetting any loss from the sale.

Dynamic pricing is hardest at work in hotels (what rate makes sense to fill that empty room?), utilities (do you really need the air conditioning right now?), and outdoor sporting events (are you willing to watch your baseball team during that unexpected rainstorm?).  And of course, any time you shop Amazon or Uber, dynamic pricing is asking the question, “how much do you really want that product or ride?”

Let’s pull up to the pumps again.  If you use “GasBuddy” or some other app designed to locate the lowest price-per-gallon, you’re winning the battle – but not the war.  I wish I had GasBuddy the first time I filled up as a teenager.  I crunched the numbers: forty years of driving; a tank of gas per week; eighteen gallons or so per tank.  If I purchased at $0.03/gallon less each time I filled up, I’d have an extra $1,000 in my pocket by now.

Thanks to Watson and his endless algorithms however, GasBuddy isn’t much more than instant gratification.  The suppliers are always one step ahead.  Unless you keep an eye on prices (and a few gallons in your tank), you’ll inevitably purchase when your demand takes priority.  Did you know gas is less expensive in the early hours of the day?  That’s because commuters are more likely to fill up at the end of the day, when they unknowingly drive up demand.  The computer is only too happy to adjust the price.

Maybe now you’ll leave the house a little earlier in the morning.  Fill up on your way to work instead of on your way home later in the day.  You will save a couple of cents per gallon if you do that.  And good for you – you’re beating the dynamic-pricing game.

Just don’t buy a cup of coffee while you’re at it.