Before a group of Coca-Cola aficionados known as the Cola Clan agreed to hold their 1978 convention at the Town & Country Hotel, the hotel’s manager had to pull the plugs on soft drink machines that dispensed anything other than The Real Thing.
That’s how adamant Coke lovers like National City resident Bud West get about the world’s most popular soft drink. And that’s why the San Diego companies that bottle Coca-Cola, Pepsi-Cola, Seven-Up and the other soft drinks are expecting Coke’s “new taste,” announced last week, to put even more fizz into the summer sales season, historically the industry’s best.
“It’s going to be a very exciting, competitive summer,” predicted Dick Graeber, vice president and general manager of the Pepsi-Cola Bottling of San Diego, which is owned by San Diegans James B. Lindsey and his son, James Jr. “Good, fair competition always increases the (market), and in a good, competitive environment we plan on getting more than our share.”
“There should be incremental sales simply because advertising is going to be heavy,” said Bob McCray, an executive with Coca-Cola Bottling of San Diego, which is owned by Beatrice’s beverage division. “With Coca-Cola being the kind of marketers they are, I’m convinced our share will improve.”
Coca-Cola is the leading soft drink in San Diego, McCray said, although Pepsi-Cola officials counter that Pepsi leads in the “freedom of choice” market--the convenience and grocery stores, where consumers choose which soft drink to buy. That contrasts with the fast-food and other restaurants that offer either Pepsi or Coke products.
The secrecy that shrouded Coke’s monumental marketing decision was effective, McCray said. “We were tipped off to reduce inventory, but I’d never have guessed what the reason was going to be. I’ve been in this business for 35 years, and when they announced the change I was literally shocked. It’s a bold move but not a gamble.”
What does the new Coke taste like?
“It’s very good,” McCray said. “A good Coca-Cola drinker won’t detect a tremendous change. I don’t know how to describe it, other than to say it’s maybe rounder, maybe a little smoother.”
McCray’s optimism aside, Coke’s bid to pump up flat sales likely will leave a sour taste on clan member Bud West’s palate.
“I hear it’s sweeter and more fattening,” West said last week. “I’m retired now, and you know what that means.”
West isn’t worrying, however. In addition to their collection of Coke memorabilia, he and his wife, Alda, “have a closet filled with Coke, both bottles and cans.”
Other clan members are less accepting.
“Personally, I think it’s for the birds,” said David Zorn, a former Cola Clan president from Illinois who was in San Diego for the 1978 convention. “I haven’t tasted it yet, but I hear they’ve sweetened it up, and that’s on the inferior side of the ledger.”
While Cola Clan members are disappointed by Coke’s meddling with the soft drink’s 87-year-old secret formula, the move will put new fizz into the Coca-Cola memorabilia collecting game. “We’ll go (crazy) trying to collect all the memorabilia,” Zorn said. “We’ll be shipping cans and bottles from one end of the country to the other.”
The new taste of Coke, however, doesn’t excite Poway resident Cecil Munsey. In 1972, Munsey wrote “The Illustrated Guide to the Collectibles of Coca-Cola,” a book that has sold more than 25,000 copies and is accepted as the Cola Clan’s Bible.
“I drink Diet Coke without caffeine, and I don’t know if it tastes any better than (San Diego’s) water,” Munsey said.
What does Coke’s formula change mean for collectibles? “Nothing right now,” said Munsey. “But 50 years down the line it will mean something. It will be a before/after thing,” a benchmark for Coca-Cola collectors.
Will the Cola Clan’s nearly 3,000 serious collectors be storing away bottles of today’s Real Thing and one day decanting them like a fine vintage wine?
Don’t count on it.
After about 30 days, Zorn warned, “it goes flat.”