Cola's Final Frontier: Coke v Pepsi in Myanmar

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in ,, at 9/21/2013 02:19:00 PM
He thought he was the King of America
Where they pour Coca-Cola like vintage wine

In 1986 Elvis Costello penned the lyrics above to the first song of his album King of America, "Brilliant Mistake." I thought it was pretty crafty way back when, but even then, the snobbery against drinking carbonated beverages was their cultural unsophistication as Costello intoned. Nowadays, of course, we are more concerned with the unhealthy amounts of sugar and caffeine they contain. Such concerns have caused cola consumption to steadily fall Stateside since 2005, but it remains a highly saturated market with the average American drinking a whopping 714 8 oz servings of carbonated beverages in 2012.

Supersaturation of the home market has caused both Coca-Cola and Pepsi to take on a two-pronged strategy. The first is developing ostensibly healthier drinks. The second, of course, involves going abroad in search of new or undersaturated markets. Reflecting the latter concern, it is unsurprising that the current heads of these venerable American brands are foreign-born and that they gained their reputations by growing business abroad: India-born Indra Nooyi has been Pepsi CEO since 2006 and Turkey-born Muhtar Kent has been Coca-Cola CEO since 2009.

Together they have been duking it out in cola wars waged around the world in a battle for carbonated supremacy. Compared to the 714 colas each American consumes, there is room for much sales (and waistline) growth elsewhere. Nowhere is this competition as intense in Southeast Asia as Myanmar. Returning to this market for the first time since Eisenhower was president after decades-long US sanctions were lifted. Coke finds challenges and opportunities in equal measure. While Pepsi was first to re-enter Myanmar last year, it has had to up its pace in market development with the entry of Coke by signing new bottling agreements. Over a third of Pepsi revenues are now in the developing world. OTOH, Coke's Muhtar Kent compares Myanmar opening up to the world to the fall of the Berlin Wall, and fellow MNC Unilever likens it to "another Vietnam" in terms of possible future returns. (Should we be glad that "Vietnam" is now shorthand for promising new markets as opposed to unpromising battlefields?)

The stage is thus set for another battle royale for the hearts and waistlines of the Burmese consumer. (Coca-Cola counters with CSR efforts on the latter point, though.)  Indeed, the only ones losing out economically may be domestic firms that grew during the years of international isolation (see the clip above). Local firms are going into a cost-leadership strategy from what I can tell while ceding the foreigner / upscale segments to the MNCs. Either way, there may be no greater beverage grab of this magnitude to come for years unless North Korea opens to the world, too.

NPR has a very interesting write-up concerning Myanmar's isolation: Coca-Cola went back to its promotional strategies during the 1800s to account for ways to gain product attention in a "media dark" environment:
[Southeast Asia Marketing Director Shakir] 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.