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Robert Woodruff was no slacker when it came to quality. And to get it from his employees, he sometimes stirred things up.

One day in 1926, the chief executive of Coca-Cola Co. called his salesmen together. He said their jobs would no longer exist, so they were fired. Woodruff added, however, that the firm planned to create a brand-new position. Those interested could attend a meeting the next day.

The nervous men showed up, and Woodruff pitched his new plan. He wanted all of them in the room to toss their “salesman” titles and take on the new role of “serviceman.” Getting Coca-Cola to the soda fountains across the nation wasn’t enough, Woodruff thought. In order to win, the firm had to become No. 1 in service. Each serviceman was assigned to a new territory.

Coca-Cola’s service staff strove for what Woodruff wanted: ensuring that the soda fountains served each glass of the soft drink at its best.

Woodruff [1889-1985] became Coca-Cola’s CEO in April 1923 and held the position for 31 years. By the time he retired in 1954, the former pharmacy-born elixir had grown into a global beverage with $7 billion in sales. Coca-Cola remains one of America’s best known consumer brands.

How did a man with poor grades in school and no background in the beverage industry score so much success?

The former truck salesman figured he had a winning product in Coca-Cola. So instead of trying to make drastic changes, he focused on ways to keep customers and to make the drink better.

Setting Standards 

lg_six_pack_cartonTo keep quality even, Woodruff standardized everything regarding the drink.

He set up a fountain training school to teach servicemen and vendors the proper way to serve Coca-Cola. Students learned that the ideal temperature at which to serve the drink was 34 degrees Fahrenheit. Instructors taught the servicemen to remember, “It’s gotta be cold if it’s gonna be sold.”

To enhance the drink’s taste, they instructed fountain servers to serve it only in a specially designed bell-shaped glass. Servers also had to us shaved ice made with special six-pronged ice forks supplied by Coca-Cola.

Woodruff also stressed a high level of hygiene at every plant.

One day in 1924, he stepped into a plant and found a carpet of dust on the machines, broken bottles in one corner, and flies sucking up spilled syrup everywhere, Mark Pendergrast wrote in For God, Country and Coca-Cola. Woodruff demanded that the factory owner shape up or ship out. The owner replied it wouldn’t do any good because the next day it would look the same again. So Woodruff slowly took his cigar out of his mouth, looked straight at the man and said, “You wipe your (behind), don’t you?”

Standardization wasn’t limited to production. Bookkeeping practices, the color of trucks, even the driver uniforms all had to be the same. In any form of advertising, the name “Coca-Cola” couldn’t be broken up into two lines, no matter how small the ad, Howard Means wrote in Money & Power: The History of Business. 

Wouldn’t Go Negative 

COCA COLA AND SANTA CLAUSIn the 1920s, negative ads were status quo in the industry. Big companies tried to feed on consumers’ fears. Hoover Vacuum ads proclaimed that “Dirty Rugs Are Dangerous,” Pendergrast wrote, Scott Tissues, Gillette and other big companies also tried to scare the consumer into using their wares.

Woodruff refused to go along. His policy was no negative ads. Why? He wanted people to drink Coca-Cola as a means to enjoy a relaxing moment during their busy lives.

It wasn’t just a drink, he contended, but a way of life.

So he spent time and resources on creating a positive, feel-good brand. With help from the D’Arcy ad agency, Woodruff soon found the words he wanted to describe Coke. Billboards stretched across rural and urban America carrying phrases such as “The Pause That Refreshes,” “Bounce Back to Normal,” and “Always Delightful.”

Woodruff also backed the hiring of top painters to create images that associated Coke with the best that the American way of life had to offer. Norman Rockwell’s painting of a freckled boy sitting with his dog, fishing pole and a Coca-Cola bottle was one of many ads that perfected the drink’s image.

In the U.S. and Europe, Santa Claus was depicted as tall and gaunt or as an elf, dressed in blue, yellow or other colors. In 1931, Coca-Cola ran ads painted by Haddon Sundblom of Santa as a jolly fat man with a Coke bottle in hand, donning black boots, a wide belt and dressed in Coca-Cola red. The rendition of Santa has struck ever since.

Woodruff knew mass advertising alone couldn’t drive sale. So he strove to make Coca-Cola available in as many places as possible.

Growing With America 

tumblr_inline_mzqcf37d5Q1r2y9p6As more and more people traveled, gas stations spread across the country. Woodruff spotted this trend. So the firm developed and sold coolers, vending machines, dispensing equipment and displays to make Coca-Cola “within an arm’s reach of desire.”

Woodruff believed in intensive market research to keep growing.

In the late 1920s, Coca-Cola had bottling plants in nearly every town and made it into all of the 115,000 soda fountains across the U.S. So Woodruff asked the statistics department to find out if Coca-Cola had reached a saturation point.

After a three-year study of 15,000 retail outlets, they found a close tie between traffic flow and sales volume. Woodruff learned that dealers with the highest sales tended to have the largest number of passers-by as potential new customers. But these outlets had few Coca-Cola signs inside or outside the store.

Armed with this knowledge, Woodruff deployed servicemen to visit these hot spots more often and offer special services. Then the marketing research team got into full swing again, surveying 42,000 drugstore customers, Pendergrast wrote. They found that 22% of those who tried Coke make a second purchase at some other counter. 

Source: “BUSINESS LEADERS & SUCCESS – 55 TOP BUSINESS LEADERS & HOW THEY ACHIEVED GREATNESS” (With an introduction from William J. O’Neil, founder of INVESTOR’S BUSINESS DAILY, New York: McGraw-Hill, 2004, pages 131-134. 

Jakarta, 12 May 2014 

Frans Indrapradja

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