Stuart Elliott: Roger Enrico and the Cola Wars

By Stuart Elliott Report Archives
Cover image for  article: Stuart Elliott: Roger Enrico and the Cola Wars

For some of us, the 1980s is known as much for the start of the Cola Wars as for the end of the Cold War. The fight between Coca-Cola and Pepsi-Cola for soft-drink hegemony was more than a marketing battle. It also became part of the pop-culture zeitgeist, as evidenced by the lyric about "rock and roller Cola Wars" in "We Didn't Start the Fire," Billy Joel's encyclopedic recounting of American history from 1949 to 1989.

One of the fiercest, and most clever, cola warriors died last week: The legendary Roger Enrico, the executive who directed the Pepsi brand's aggressive efforts to dislodge Coke from its first-place perch among American consumers. His passing generated an outpouring of tributes from Purchase, NY, where PepsiCo is based; Madison Avenue, where Enrico worked with a phalanx of agency professionals on his rule-breaking, risk-taking campaigns; and even Atlanta, where his longtime archrival has its headquarters.

In a full-page ad in The New York Times, the Coca-Cola Company declared: "Remembering and honoring the life of a true leader, passionate competitor and an incredible human being."

That praise was echoed on Facebook by John Sicher, the longtime editor and publisher of the authoritative trade newsletter Beverage Digest. He described Enrico as "a very interesting and a very creative person. With great leadership skills. And decency. A combination not commonly occurring."

Enrico's strategy and tactics rewrote the marketing playbook for packaged goods and challenger brands. He built on the work of previous Pepsi trailblazers, especially John Sculley, who championed the "Pepsi Challenge" -- blind taste tests that Pepsi always won over Coke -- and Alan Pottasch, who developed the concept of the "Pepsi Generation," which eschewed extolling the virtues of the product in favor of celebrating the lifestyle of its consumers.

Working with Phil Dusenberry and other creative geniuses at BBDO, Enrico took the "Pepsi Generation" a step beyond, proclaiming in 1984 that Pepsi was "the choice of a new generation." He sought to prove it by signing up a lengthy list of contemporary, youthful celebrities as Pepsi endorsers, most notably Michael Jackson, Michael J. Fox, Cindy Crawford, Lionel Richie and Madonna.

The intended message: Pepsi's young and fun, while Coke's for old fogies and has-beens. That was underscored with a cutting commercial from BBDO, titled "Archaeology" and set "sometime in the future." As a professor escorts his class of Pepsi drinkers through a dig of a quaint 20th-century home, he explains discoveries such as a baseball and a guitar. But when a student finds a Coke bottle and asks, "What is it?" he's stumped, replying, "I have no idea."

It took guts to assert that your competitor, who's actually outselling you in the present, will be obsolete and forgotten one day. And perhaps it went too far, crossing a line from cheekiness to meanness; the gods may have interpreted it as hubris and decided that Pepsi would never catch up to Coke in the United States, much less surpass it.

But Enrico's agitations certainly provoked Coke into making one of the worst mistakes in marketing history: The introduction in 1985 of New Coke. The new formula, sweeter than its predecessor -- and thus more like Pepsi -- was a fast flop, forcing mortified Coke executives into bringing back the original, as Coca-Cola Classic.

"The other guy just blinked," Enrico famously riposted in an ad that came out the day New Coke was announced; the phrase inspired his 1986 memoir, "The Other Guy Blinked -- How Pepsi Won the Cola Wars." Though Pepsi never has passed Coke, you could make a case that Enrico's continual series of confident marketing moves strengthened Pepsi by drawing attention from No. 1, which narrowed the bigger brand's lead and kept Pepsi fighting on.

You also could make a case that Enrico helped create a template for today's approach to advertising by communicating constantly with current and potential customers, stirring the pot all the time with energetic, upbeat initiatives in realms such as music and movies. Imagine what he would have done with social media and experiential marketing. 

Enrico was "one of the smartest marketers in the game," Karen Benezra, who has worked at Cornerstone Capital, Nielsen and Brandweek, wrote on Facebook, "and a true 'cola warrior' throughout."

He "encouraged you to aim higher, learn quickly and play to win in all you do," Rick Murray, managing partner and chief digital strategist at National Public Relations, also wrote on Facebook.

With Enrico's death, the ranks of cola warriors has thinned again, less than a month after the passing of Bill Backer, a creative force behind the 1971 "Hilltop" commercial for Coke. Donald Keough, who helped steer Coca-Cola through the New Coke debacle, died last year, while we lost both Dusenberry and Pottasch in 2007.

And these days, the Cola Wars are more like a skirmish, what with the demonization of sugared soft drinks and how consumers are far more interested in new smartphones than new sodas. Still, Enrico may have been interested in familiarizing a new generation with the era when Pepsi clashed with Coke; I understand he was working on an idea for a TV series or film with the tentative title of "Fizz: Dispatches From the Cola Wars."

The opinions and points of view expressed in this commentary are exclusively the views of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, Inc. management or associated bloggers.

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