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

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.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Robert Smith is a host for NPR's Planet Money where he tells stories about how the global economy is affecting our lives.
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