How To Sell Coke To People Who Have Never Had A Sip

Jun 7, 2013
Originally published on June 10, 2013 2:05 pm

For years, there were only three countries in the world that didn't officially sell Coca-Cola: Cuba, North Korea and Myanmar, formerly known as Burma.

Now, after 60 years, Coke is back in Myanmar. Sanctions were lifted last year on the country. Just this week, Coca-Cola opened its new bottling plant outside of Yangon. Now all the company has to do is figure out a way to sell all that Coke to people who may not remember what it tastes like.

The Myanmar people missed out on billions of dollars of worldwide advertising during those 60 years. All the great Coke ad campaigns — "I'd like to buy the world a Coke," Mean Joe Green, the Real Thing, and those cute polar bears didn't make an impact on a country that was suffering under a brutal military regime.

Shakir Moin, who was the head of marketing for Coke in Southeast Asia, says that they had to start from scratch in Myanmar. They had to keep it simple, and they had to find the right message. A message, it turns out, that was hidden more than a hundred years back in the Coca-Cola archives.

Moin first visited Yangon, Myanmar's largest city, last summer, when the U.S. government announced that it would start loosening restrictions on doing business with the country. The Myanmar government had made progress in human rights, and become a little more democratic. But when Moin arrived in Yangon, he could see that the country hadn't made much economic progress.

"It was literally like a trip back in time," Moin says. "There were very few cars. there was no cell phone connection. Internet was only available at the hotel."

Moin had been running marketing campaigns in the rest of Asia that included mobile advertising, social networks, and ads in video games. Now he had to sell to a place where the electricity went out every day, a place where people rarely even watched TV.

On that first visit, Moin found some good news for Coca-Cola. People seemed to remember the Coke name. During the sanctions, enterprising businessmen had smuggled in Coke cans from Thailand and Singapore and sold them at a hefty mark-up in hotels and high end cafes. People knew the brand.

But this name recognition created a bigger challenge, the high-priced bootleg Coke cans gave the impression in Myanmar that Coke was an elite product.

"The imagery they had of Coke was that it was for the extremely rich and well-to-do people," Moin says.

Also, because of the cost and scarcity in the country, there were millions of people who had never had a Coke. Maybe they knew the product by name, but they had never tasted it.

By last fall, Coke had begun looking for a local partner for a bottling plant in Myanmar. It had started shipping in Coke from Thailand, and Moin and his team had very little time to come up with a plan to change the way an entire country felt about his product.

Moin says he started to go back in the Coca-Cola archives. He was looking at how the company marketed its product before the internet, before TV, even before radio. Eventually he found his perfect model for Myanmar, place where nobody knew anything about Coke — Atlanta, 1886.

Back then the hot advertising trend was wall posters. Moin noticed that in the beginning, Coke didn't use the posters to talk about friends or happiness or style. It talked about what the product tasted like. It simply described it. Moin pulled out two words in particular that would form the core of his Myanmar campaign — "delicious, refreshing."

Those two words from the 1800s are now on the Myanmar bottle, and on the billboards and fliers that advertise the product.

Moin pulled another trick from the early days of Coke. They offered free samples. Samples has brought people into the pharmacy soda counters in Atlanta in 1886, now free samples attract crowds at Buddhist festivals in Myanmar. It's a way to get people to taste the product, but just as importantly, it's a way to show off Coke at its best.

Myanmar has spotty electricity and bad refrigerators. Coca-Cola was worried that people were trying Coke at room temperature. At the tastings, everyone gets an ice-cold bottle of Coke, and instructions on the proper way to drink Coke — a five point plan for deliciousness:

1) Get a glass.

2) Chill the bottle.

3) Put three cubes of ice in the glass.

4) Pour at a 45 degree angle.

5) Add a dash of lime.

A shorter version of the advice is on the back of the bottle. In fact, all the marketing messages, the slogans, the history of Coke, and the ice-cold mandate are all squeezed onto the bottle. Moin says its the one place where they know they can catch the consumer's eye.

Moin also uses the bottle to tackle that other big problem: the perception that Coke is for the upper class. In the center of every label is the price of the product, 300 Kyat, about 32 cents. Coke almost never does this. It lets the retailer set the price, but this time, they were convinced that stores would just continue to sell Coke at a huge mark-up unless they put the price on the bottle.

Coke is now the same price as its rivals, which sprung up during the era of sanctions, Max Cola and Star Cola. Pepsi is back in the country too.

So far though, Coca-Cola seems to have a edge. Part of their market research showed that people in Myanmar respect things that are the oldest. They like the original version.

I met a young man, So Htaik, drinking a Coke in the night market in Yangon's Chinatown. He said living under a dictatorship, with limited choice of products, makes you hate copies and love authenticity.

"We really want to try the real things here," he said.

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This week, Coca-Cola opened its newest bottling plant in one of the few countries on Earth that did not already have one - Myanmar, in Southeast Asia - also known as Burma.

It's been 60 years since Coke has been made there, and luring customers back is not easy. Robert Smith, with our Planet Money Team, has the story.

ROBERT SMITH, BYLINE: For years, the only countries left on Earth without Coke were Cuba, North Korea and Myanmar. The U.S. had slapped sanctions on them all. But last summer, the restrictions started to be lifted from Myanmar; and Coca-Cola executives hopped the first plane to Yangon.

SHAKIR MOIN: It was literally, a trip back in time. You know, it was like you have taken a time warp but backwards.

SMITH: Shakir Moin is in charge of marketing Coca-Cola in the region. He grew up in Pakistan. He knows how hard it is to do business in a developing country, but Myanmar was so far behind.

MOIN: Very few cars, no cellphone connection. Internet connection was only available at the hotel.

SMITH: Still, as he looked around, he saw an amazing opportunity for Coke. Here was an untapped market of nearly 60 million people. And everyone in the country seems to have a sweet tooth. On street corners, you can see these vendors.


SMITH: Guys with giant stalks of sugarcane. They squeeze it through a press, sell you the juice.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

SMITH: And that just means sugar water, right?



SMITH: They love their sugar water here. And Coke could have been huge in Myanmar, if not for the sanctions. Instead, during the years of government repression, people drank counterfeit Coke. A young man I met, So Htaik, says he made do with local brands like Max Cola and Star Cola.

SO HTAIK: Star Cola is a slight imitation of Coca-Cola. So we really want to try the real things here.

SMITH: After his first visit, Shakir knew that Myanmar was ready. Some people had even been secretly smuggling Coke across the border.

MOIN: There was cans from Thailand, cans from Vietnam, and cans from Singapore.

SMITH: But this turned out to be the first big problem for the comeback of Coca-Cola. The bootleg Coke was expensive. Not many people drank it. And when Shakir started to talk to people, he realized that Coke had gotten this elite reputation.

MOIN: The imagery that they had of Coke was for the extremely rich and well-to-do people.

SMITH: You can't sell millions of bottles of your product if it is considered the Dom Perignon of sugar water. So Shakir hatched a plan, a plan to change the way an entire country thought of Coke. First, he had to tackle that price problem. And when Coke started to bottle their product inside Myanmar, Shakir did something they almost never do - printed the price right on the label. Three hundred kyat, it says, the local currency; about 33 cents. That way, stores could not get away with charging high prices for Coke.

MOIN: And we want to make sure that Coca-Cola is affordable for everyone who wants to buy it.

SMITH: It worked, even though when I bought my first Coke in Myanmar, the woman tried to charge me more than the official price.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken)

SMITH: What did she say? She wants to charge me 350?


SMITH: Even though it says 300.


SMITH: She eventually gave up. So now that Coke was cheap, Shakir had to tackle his second big problem. Most of the country had never actually tasted Coca-Cola. They knew the idea of Coke, but not the flavor. And this is a marketing challenge the company hasn't had to face in decades. Normally, no one has to explain Coke.

Shakir went to the company archives, and he looked back through all the advertising. And he finally found the perfect model. There was another time when Coke had to introduce itself to a country that didn't know a thing about it. It was more than a hundred years ago, when Coke was first invented.

MOIN: So literally, the first stop was 1886 Atlanta.

SMITH: Atlanta, birthplace of Coke. No one had tasted it back then, and soda fountains there used free samples to spread the word. They're doing the same thing now, in Myanmar; going into neighborhoods and giving out ice-cold bottles, along with an instruction sheet on how to properly drink Coke - three ice cubes, pour at a 45-degree angle, squeeze of lime.

Shakir says he also found his new slogan for his bottle back on posters from the 1800s.

MOIN: The messaging, in the early days, was that it's a delicious product and it refreshes you. So if you are to walk down the streets of Myanmar, that's the singularly - the only messaging that you would find on Coca-Cola; it's delicious and refreshing.

SMITH: It sounds a little more profound in the local language. I asked a guide at one of the Buddhist temples to read the new Coke label out loud.

KHIN WIN: It's Myanmar language (foreign language spoken) - good, delicious and fresh mind.

SMITH: Fresh mind?

WIN: Fresh mind. If you drink, you can get a clearer mind.

SMITH: My guide, Khin Win, says normally, he drinks tea. But he'd give this bottle a try.

Robert Smith, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.