. Modified for use here.)
What is life?
"A board-game, a cereal, a magazine, and the inconceivable act of dynamic matter gathering, moving, self-propelling itself first to form, then to mind, and eventually somehow, to consciousness, so that one can ponder the cosmos and bask in the warmth of love amongst manmade canyons on this entirely pointless spinning rock that not only possesses life, but is absolutely covered by it."
This is the requisite precursor of the classic question "What is the meaning of life?" The tricky thing is - the meaning of life might just be the search for meaning itself. Thoughts?
This post is a rare departure for me. Usually I babble about the universe or spirituality and whatnot, but today I want to tell you a story about product development. Coca-Cola in particular. So let me babble about that for a while instead.
I'm an Advertising Strategist by day. By night, I soak up all the podcasts and audiobooks and articles I can on the subject. Looking for recommendations? Try You Are Not So Smart, Freakonomics, and Blink. Those are good places to start. In fact, I heard this story in one or more of those places.
Anyway, here's the story of the infamous New Coke and how it relates to Diet Coke. Picture the late 70's/early 80's. Pepsi had a huge marketing win over Coca-Cola with the Pepsi Challenge. The idea was simple. Have people sip a little Pepsi and a little Coke and choose which one tasted better. Pepsi won. Why? Because it's sweeter. And in a single sip, Pepsi is actually preferred. The problem is - when drinking an entire can, Coca-Cola is preferred. Didn't matter, because the damage to Coke was done.
Pepsi continued its success with the Pepsi Generation campaign. Remember Michael Jackson, the world's biggest star, shilling for Pepsi?
Meanwhile, Coca-Cola had a surprising success on its hands with Diet Coke. Instead of taking the Coca-Cola formula and replacing the sugar with artificial sweeteners, the company created Diet Coke as an entirely new product. Part of the reason for this was that the artificial sweeteners available at the time did not taste like sugar or corn syrup. They were sweet in a weird way. So they had to re-formulate to get a decent tasting diet cola. So - Diet Coke is not Coke without the sugar. It's wholly different. And people loved it.
The trouble there is, Diet Coke was now also eating away at Coca-Cola's market share alongside Pepsi and 7up et al. But Coke wanted their flagship sugary Coca-Cola to be the reigning #1 cola on the market. So they had to do something
The plan? Take the artificial sweeteners out of Diet Coke (which people liked) and replace them with sugary sweet corn syrup. The result was a beverage sweeter than Coca-Cola and Pepsi. They branded it New Coke. And guess what? It tested through the roof. Single sip after single sip, people preferred the sweet taste of New Coke.
But remember A. people didn't actually prefer that much sweetness after an entire 12 ounce can, and now we know that B. people are sentimental. No one pictured themselves as a New Coke drinker. They were Coca-Cola drinkers! The New Coke era was a genuine disaster.
Now, there are people out there who will tell you the whole New Coke thing was a sham. That Coke never intended for New Coke to be a success and that they were just trying to force nostalgia. But the evidence suggests that they really did hope that New Coke would take off. So says Snopes
The obvious thing to do was to bring back Coca-Cola full force to take advantage of the rising tide of nostalgia. And of course Coca-Cola Classic was reborn. New Coke stayed on the market for a few more years. Later re-branded as Coke 2. But it was dying an untimely death as Coke Classic took back the top spot. The rest was history.
Decades later, Coke realized that there was a segment of the market that wanted zero calorie cola but didn't think of themselves as "on a diet". Hence, Coke Zero. Targeted mainly for men, Coke Zero was in essence Classic Coke with the sugars replaced by newer sugary tasting artificial sweeteners. That's the primary difference between Diet Coke and Coke Zero. Diet Coke was an entirely new product. Coke Zero was Coke without the sugar.
Fascinating? I think so. And for the record, I don't drink any of it. Unless there's bourbon involved.
I promise I am not writing this to pat myself on the back. In fact, I didn't really do anything. Just an interesting story - to me anyway.
In line at Starbucks this morning, a homeless guy came up and asked if I'd buy him a cup of coffee. He's in his late 20's probably. Long dark hair, hands and face grey with dust, bright blue eyes, and relatively well put together. He's articulate and sort of charming. His eyes are a little wild, shooting glances everywhere. He's clearly dealing with some mental challenges, but I didn't get the feeling that his demeanor was a symptom of drug use.
So he walks up and asks if I'd buy him a cup of coffee. "Of course," I said. But then one of the employees thought he was bothering me so they gently walked him out. They were nice about it and he didn't mind. As he went out the door, he looked back at me and said "I'll be right outside."
After he left, the people around me in line said things like "Wow that was awkward," and "He sure was bold." I didn't quite get it. I said "No it's cool. He seemed nice."
I got to the register and ordered two cups of coffee. As the woman at the register started ringing up the order, the guy who escorted the fella out started filling the two cups. He said to me "Is this for who I think it's for?" and held up one of the cups. "Yeah." And he told the woman at the register, "Just charge him for one. This one's on the house." I was grateful. It was a very nice gesture on his part.
I paid for my coffee and brought the cups outside. The fella greeted me with a huge smile and asked if he could walk with me. (See! I didn't really do anything. Just handed a homeless dude a free cup of coffee.)
I have to admit, I got a little nervous. People can be unpredictable. So I didn't get too close and I stayed alert just in case. But yeah, I walked with him. We shook hands and exchanged first names. Over the next couple of blocks, he asked about what I did for a living and I told him. And I asked about him and he told me. He was upbeat and optimistic. Genuinely looking at the positive things in his life. I'll share his side of the conversation.
"I live in a tent under Chestnut Street at the Schuylkill River. It's really not bad. The tent keeps the cold wind out and I sleep pretty well. I set up the tent at night and take it down in the morning. I have a whole routine. Oh! And guess what? I had a job interview yesterday! Delivering food on a bike. I looked a lot cleaner than I do right now... I think it went well. I'm feeling optimistic about it. Oh! And guess what else? I have a girlfriend! She lives with me in the tent. She's at Barnes and Noble now, warming up a little."
He really was that articulate and energetic. A really nice guy. He reminded me of some of the characters that Sal Paradise stumbles across in On the Road. I wished him luck on his job prospect and we parted ways. Maybe I could have done more? He didn't ask for anything and he seemed to be on a pretty good path. I'll let you know if I bump into him again. I have a feeling he might keep an eye out for me.
(Note: That's not him in the picture. It's an old shot I took long ago, but it fits the gist of the story.)
A man with true insight. Baba Ram Dass.