CNBCfix review: Coca-Cola doc
doesn’t seem like a classic

          Posted: Saturday, November 14, 2009; updated Thursday, November 19, 2009

The latest installment of CNBC's often-impressive documentary lineup, unfortunately, might be called "Vanilla Coke."

Melissa Lee's "Coca Cola: The Real Story Behind the Real Thing" in the opening 10 minutes fails to make a case for itself. This is a story without an angle. Several possibilities do come to mind, but they didn't happen here.

There is no drama, no hook. The "unprecedented access" CNBC boasts in the press release isn't exciting. The product in question is extremely mature, something everyone's heard of, and it's something we taste. Taste is rather hard to depict on television. Most of the images are truck drivers flipping cases around or shoppers walking through grocery store aisles.

In the critical opening segment, Lee suggests two themes. The first is that we are getting a marketing story; she talks to Chief Marketing Officer Joe Tripodi, and Coke says "its research shows that half of all shoppers' decisions to buy are an impulse that hits in the first five seconds in the aisle." Lee visits Coke's "secret research facility," supposedly the first time outsiders have seen it, and all it looks like is a clean gas station. But then Lee moves on to CEO Gary Fayard and says the company is "now in a fierce public health fight," and the focus seems to shift into Coke's mistakes and inability to deflect obesity concerns.

This is a grab bag of everything Coke that runs about a half-mile wide and maybe a couple inches deep. Lee shows clips of the famous commercials. She spends a few minutes on New Coke. She tours extreme poverty in South Africa to prove the brand is everywhere. She visits an old-school independent bottler whose business may have to change. She shows off Coke's "fountain of the future" with exec Gene Farrell. (At least one blogger, from the Palm Beach Post, found Coke's "fountain of the future" impressive, but it seems like just another do-it-yourself soda fountain whose novelty might wear off.) Lee takes a tour through the Coca-Cola vault with historian Phil Mooney, but other than a few old bottles, shows very few of the treasures inside.

Viewers should note the average age of the people Lee interviews. CNBC probably in general skews to an older audience, but this is a seriously AARP-heavy lineup, with very few under 30, seemingly a lapse for Coke's marketing department, which probably should've been thinking about hip young endorsers it could've made available to Lee's production.

One reason CNBC's David Faber and Lori Gordon had another winner recently with Wal-Mart is because Wal-Mart remains a controversial company; Coca-Cola is anything but. Faber brought the drama, local residents opposed to Wal-Mart, unions trying to get in, and China critics singling out alleged abuses.

The Coke story is nice, happy, ancient by business standards and largely uninteresting. Lee notes a couple times what a formidable rival Pepsi is. But never does she offer specifics about how Pepsi might have scored points; for example, which one does better in bottled water, which has the better-selling sports drink, how do their grocery store contracts work as to which brand gets the most space, etc.

Actually, it would've been fascinating for Lee to mention which biggies have which contract; it might be that McDonald's operators have to sell Coke exclusively, but what about places like Burger King, Denny's, Subway, Yankee Stadium, Wal-Mart.

Lee doesn't say Coke's branding has run aground, but here is a list, per Wikipedia, of Coke slogans in the last 40 years, and see how many of these (particularly this decade) you actually remember:

1969 - It's the real thing.
1971 - I'd like to buy the world a Coke.
1976 - Coke adds life.
1979 - Have a Coke and a smile.
1982 - Coke is it!
1985 - America's Real Choice
1986 - Red White & You (for Coca-Cola Classic)
1986 - Catch the Wave (for New Coke)
1989 - Can't Beat the Feeling.
1993 - Always Coca-Cola.
2000 - Enjoy.
2001 - Life tastes good.
2003 - Real.
2005 - Make It Real.
2006 - The Coke Side of Life
2007 - Live on the Coke Side of Life
2009 - Open Happiness
2010 - Twist The Cap To Refreshness

Karen Finerman, a panelist on Lee's regular CNBC show "Fast Money," asked a great question recently that an analyst couldn't answer, how much of Coca-Cola's business is NOT related to Coca-Cola or Diet Coke? About as close as Lee gets to answering questions like that in this program is a quote from CEO Muhtar Kent, who says "70% or more of our total volume is still in sparkling beverages."

How about comparing regular Coke to Diet Coke sales? When was Diet Coke invented? We learned quickly from Wikipedia that Diet Coke launched on July 4, 1982, is made with aspartame, and is called Coca-Cola Light in Europe. Coke's diet drink had been Tab, as it didn't want to attach the Coca-Cola name to anything but the franchise drink, but then changed its mind and created Diet Coke after seeing the success of Diet Pepsi. Between Wikipedia, Coca-Cola's own corporate Web site and Google searches for soft drink sales rankings, we couldn't find any specific retail numbers comparing original Coca-Cola and Diet Coke sales, but we did see articles stating Coca-Cola Classic is No. 1, Pepsi-Cola is No. 2, and Diet Coke is apparently No. 3.

If Lee were interested in aggressive journalism here, she might've corralled a handful of the distributor guys who put all those Cokes and Pepsis in large office vending machines (both brands in each machine) and ask them which ones they tend to refill more often.

What we're left with is the notion that Coca-Cola is an enduring but extremely mature company that has already saturated the world, that probably can't do a whole lot more to move the needle but seems a permanent staple of life and thus, a permanent revenue stream. There are gobs of soft drinks out there and determining which tastes better is nothing more than an incalculable personal preference, so barely incremental sales gains are probably only going to happen through advertising. It seems from Lee's documentary that the two best things Coca-Cola has going for it are its wonderfully alliterative name, and that glorious, classic script font. Lee says the bottle is patented, but it seems a major reach these days to think undecided consumers are going to buy strictly because Coke is in unique 2-liter bottles as Kent says is happening.

While Coca-Cola boasts those venerable traits, it's long had to be wary of the stodgy reputation. Pepsi succeeded in the 1980s with "The choice of a new generation." Lee showed Coke's two most famous commercials (if you've ever been a Steelers fan, you'll understand why CNBCfix sheds a tear whenever the Joe Greene spot is on), which truly are legendary, but note each is more than 30 years old, and just ask anyone under 30 if they even know what "I'd like to teach the world to sing" is.

While this program is devoid of ideas, it spurs many. The commercials, the New Coke, the slogans. So here are some long-form programming ideas for CNBC, which can have them for free as long as it credits this site. Why not put together a "10 Greatest" campaign, as in hourlong programs on subjects like "The 10 Greatest Commercials," "The 10 Biggest Business Flops," "The 10 Greatest Ad Campaigns," "The 10 Worst Business Takeovers Ever," "The 10 Greatest CEO Power Struggles," "The 10 Greatest Commercial Songs," or even longer, something like "The 100 Best Marketing Slogans Ever."

It's freely admitted that part of this idea comes from the NFL Network, which with NFL Films has put together just such a series of well-known legends. These things are eminently watchable, can run for hours on end and require little investment other than running old TV footage, much of which must be in NBC files.

CNBC has partly outsourced a couple recent programs on Oprah Winfrey and Churchill Downs to Kurtis Productions, very capable in its own right. "The Real Story" is an in-house project and has a quality team with Lee and the crew, which includes many of the same names (Angel Perez, Marco Mastrorilli, Victoria Todis, Jackie Dessel, Pam Gaskins and executive producer Mitch Weitzner) who put together recent award-winning CNBC shows.

Because most CNBC documentaries are very engaging, expectations are high. "Coca Cola: The Real Story Behind the Real Thing," like most CNBC programs, will probably run indefinitely in prime time and on weekends and holidays. It's not much of a story. But it's good for an idea or two.

"Coca-Cola: The Real Story Behind the Real Thing" (2009)
Featuring: Joe Tripodi, Michelle Barry, Hartman Group, Gary Fayard, Muhtar Kent, Phil Mooney, Robert Woodruff, Roberto Goizueta, Donald Keough, Bill Egbe, Amanda Manchia, Cyril Ramaphosa, Shanduko, Edwin "Cookie" Rice, Bill Peccarello, Gene Farrell, Mfundo Mkhize, Deryck J. Van Rensburg

Host: Melissa Lee
Senior executive producer: Mitch Weitzner
Senior producer: James Segelstein
Producer: Hakimah Shah
Producer: Bob Waldman
Editors: Richard Korn, Allison E. Stedman
Associate producers: Cecile Antonie, Daria Shelton
Camera: Richard Atkinson, Steve Brewer, Jim Curtin, Joe DeWitt, Alejandro Hererra, William C. Irmscher, Leroy Jackson, Raul Marin, Andy Tenke, Kevin Tomlinson, Mike Vaughn, Graham Walsh, Marco Mastrorilli, Gerard Miller, Bill Simms, Greg Shaw
Jib operator: John Kelly
Audio: Tony Bensusan, Mike Curtiss, David Foerder, David Grogan, Robin Harris, Walter James, Geoff Pennington, David Schumacher
Gaffer: Marty Mewbron
Electrician: Greg Peoples
Teleprompter: Eason Duncan
Chief photographer: Angel Perez
Director of post production: Vito Tattoli
Creative director: Victoria Todis
Art director: Dan Dutches
Senior animator: Jacqueline Dessel
3D animator: Joe Stipo:
Designers: Nick O'Connor, Brian Reilly, Kate Reilly
Media coordinator: Richard Marko
Unit manager: Pamela Gaskins
Production assistant: Fatima Fasihuddin
Intern: Eeshe' White
Vice president, long-form programming: Ray Borelli

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