Lessons from the Coke War
By ROSHAN THIRAN
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“Try not to get lost in comparing yourself to others. Discover your gifts and let them shine!” — Jennie Lynn Finch, sportswoman
Last month, I was in Singapore over the Chinese New Year break with my family. While at VivoCity, known as Singapore’s largest shopping mall, my phone and my wife’s wallet were stolen.
Initially, I thought I might have misplaced it. But when we realised my wife’s wallet that was residing deep inside her handbag also went missing, we were shocked.
There have been numerous occasions where things were stolen from me. I was once mugged in Barcelona, and I had my fair share of theft encounters in Malaysia.
Yet, it was totally unexpected for me to see this happen in Singapore. What was much more shocking was us trying to file a police report in Singapore.
Ultimately, we could not launch a police report and had to return to Malaysia to file the losses. I ranted on Facebook that “the grass may not be greener” in Singapore especially with regards to their police reporting process.
Much to my surprise, the “rant” became viral. Many people started writing to me and giving advice on my predicament. I had no intention of stirring up anything, as the past was the past. Regardless of any complaints, the situation would not change.
But it got me thinking deeply about this whole belief that the “grass is always greener” on the other side.
Occasionally, especially in strong and powerful organisations, I have seen the reverse of this belief, i.e. the grass is always greener on our side.
So, what is the problem? When we consistently compare ourselves to others, we tend to try to imitate them, resulting in our loss of focus on our goals.
This ends up derailing us from achieving our legacy and impact, thus creating unhappiness. Jack Canfield once said:
“I generally find that comparison is the fast track to unhappiness.”
But more than that, there are some major issues where we play the comparison game. We fall into two major traps that engulf business leaders. And it works both ways: When we compare what we have as inferior, we become envious and it makes us greedy, wishing we were on the other side.
Alternatively, when we compare ourselves with others and feel superior, we fall into the trap of pride. We all know that pride always comes before a fall.
The Coke War: Coca-cola and Pepsi
The classic example of the ‘grass is greener’ syndrome in business happened in the 1980s between Coca-Cola and Pepsi.
Roberto C. Goizueta, one of the greatest chief executive officers in this past century, began his reign as president (and later chairman) of Coca-Cola in 1981 when its market capitalisation was around USD4.3bil (RM17.5bil). He transformed Coca-Cola and at the time of his death in 1997, Coca-Cola was worth USD152bil (RM621.4bil).
Yet, he presided over the biggest disaster in Coca-Cola’s history—their New Coke saga. The key reason for this disaster: the ‘grass is greener’ syndrome.
For most of the 20th century, Pepsi have always played second fiddle to Coca-Cola, both in the United States (US) market and globally. That all changed in April 1985 when Coca-Cola introduced New Coke to the market and stopped production of their Old Coke.
Why did Coca-Cola introduce a new formula to their best-selling drink, in spite of being number one? Simple. They were comparing themselves to Pepsi.
In 1975, Pepsi sent one of its executives, Larry Smith, to Texas as Pepsi was being clobbered there. Smith believed that Pepsi’s taste would be more popular even with Coca-Cola fans.
Smith was convinced people drank Coca-Cola not for its taste but because of its brand and trademark.
As he had nothing to lose, he conceived and staged a series of blind taste tests in Dallas, naming it the Pepsi Challenge with a catchphrase, “Let Your Taste Decide.” Pepsi won.
Despite Pepsi’s taste test challenge, Coca-Cola remained in its No 1 position. However, Coca-Cola leaders started believing that the grass is greener on the other side.
They started to wish they had a better tasting drink like Pepsi. This comparison soon led to a reformulation project, code-named Project Kansas, where a new formula, which tasted better than Pepsi, would be developed.
And so, on April 1985, Goizueta announced that they would discontinue Old Coke and introduced a better tasting New Coke, even better than Pepsi.
Pepsi could not believe it. Coca-Cola was abandoning its top selling soda in the world. Pepsi had always looked at Coca-Cola and wished they had their luck.
The Second World War had enabled Coca-Cola to grow globally as factories were built all over the world to support the US army. After the war, these factories continued to help build Coca-Cola’s global presence.
In contrast, Pepsi’s growth was slower, organic and required significant time and hard work. Pepsi should have been looking up to Coca-Cola and claim that “the grass is definitely greener on the other side.”
Instead, it was mighty Coca-Cola wishing they had a better tasting drink like Pepsi, forgetting they had the brand and market share.
When New Coke was announced, most people rejected the new product even though the blind taste tests confirmed it tasted better.
During the press announcement, a journalist asked if there was any possibility of Coca-Cola bringing back Old Coke. Coca-Cola immediately answered “Never.”
Yet, on July 11, 1985, just 79 days after they declared Old Coke’s death, Coca-Cola brought it back and renamed it “Coca-Cola Classic.” New Coke was renamed Coke II.
But the biggest disaster for Coca-Cola was seeing Pepsi overcome them for the first time in its history. Pepsi would never have been able to do so if Coca-Cola hadn’t compared. Pepsi should have been envious of Coca-Cola instead.
When you compare and become envious, you are driven to make foolish mistakes and irrational decisions.
Envy and greed
When we believe that the grass is always greener on the other side, we tend to become envious, believing that other people are luckier and have it better than us.
We then start feeling miserable, anxious, and victimised by the belief that we have so little. We are taken over by feelings of greed—wishing we had more and believing that what we have is not good enough.
In Oliver Stone’s 1987 classic, Wall Street, Gordon Gekko (played by Michael Douglas) declares that greed is good.
This begs the question: Why is greed bad? Aren’t businesses driven by greed?
Many business leaders believe greed is the key to success. Employees’ greed to get bigger bonuses and higher salaries are used as motivating factors in driving higher performance.
Most shareholders’ greed to get more out of the funds they invested, drives ruthless behaviour that many believe leads to higher performance and growth. However, the reality is something else.
Research seems to indicate that the best businesses are not driven by greed (or profits) but by values and purpose. To read my previous article on The Purpose-Driven Business, click here.
We have it really good today. Compared to previous generations, we have so many choices, opportunities and possibilities.
Today, we take communications across boundaries for granted. In spite of all the opportunities and countless choices, why are there so many unhappy, depressed and restless folks?
As we compare ourselves with others, we are never satisfied nor can we be happy with what we have. We imagine that employees in other companies have it better than us, even if our company wins awards for being a great company.
We make ourselves miserable by continuously thinking about the “wonder” elsewhere in an endless pursuit to happiness. I have seen many young folks who had great jobs become unhappy and upset simply by reading social media posts from their friends who have it better and lose sight of what they have.
I recall almost a decade ago, when I worked for General Electric (GE) which, at that point in time, was the most admired company in the world according to Fortune’s global list.
Occasionally, when my friends boasted about their amazing experiences in their organisations, I could catch myself wishing I worked there too, only to realise that I actually have been working in the best company in the world.
This ‘grass is greener’ syndrome is torturous. It creates stress (and illnesses) as we keep wondering if we missed out on the next big thing, leading to us wasting our time and productivity. More importantly, it drives negative behaviour as it did with Coca-Cola in the 1980s.
The funny thing is, when we do make a leap to the “greener side,” we find it no different. We may still be unhappy.
How do we overcome this issue of envy? I have learnt that the best way to do so is to count your blessings daily. Even in business, each of our businesses is blessed with a core competence and numerous positives.
If we focus on counting our blessings, we will start to see the strengths of our business. By focusing on our strengths, we will be able to continually build on them and grow.
Happiness is not driven by external circumstances. Instead, it is driven internally. Happiness is not a place in the future. It is today.
Writer and cartoonist Allen Saunders aptly puts it, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” Are we so busy comparing and wishing we were somewhere else that we start to miss out on the great life in front of us?
Pride comes before a fall. Many big organisations have had major landslides from their lofty perch.
Why do companies in strong positions fall? They compare themselves to others and feel superior, resulting in them resting on their laurels. The ones who succeed are those who are focused on improving themselves daily.
Last year during my son’s sports day, as he was about to win his running event, he looked back to see where the others were.
At that point in time, with his focus shifting from the finish line, his competitor (who was solely focused on his race) just nicked past him. He finished second but learnt a valuable lesson on keeping focus in his race.
Likewise, when we are ahead, we tend to look backwards, distracting ourselves from our race.
The ‘grass is greener’ syndrome also works when we think we are superior to others. If we start thinking that the grass is greener on our side and become arrogant, we soon develop destructive behaviour too. And this behaviour stems from pride.
Countless business failures can be traced to pride. Huge multinationals like Eastman Kodak Company and even IBM in the 1980s were too big to fail. But fail and fall they did.
When we are proud, we become arrogant. Arrogance blurs our sense of reality and we go into denial mode. When we see ourselves as better than others, we fail to seek ways to improve.
Grass is greener where watered
Clearly, the grass is not as lush anywhere. Every field has its share of weeds, thorns and thistles. If you ask any great leader where the grass is greenest, they will reply that the grass is greenest where it is watered well.
However, most of us would prefer to jump over the fence to where we perceive the grass is greener than to water the grass where we are. What do we mean by watering the grass?
It means working hard to make sure we do the following:
- Developing ourselves to succeed in the current organisation we are in.
It may mean changing the way we work and tweaking our behaviours to be aligned to the culture and norms of the business and its leaders.
- Supporting and improving the current organisation or place you are in.
This may mean volunteering to do things above and beyond your work scope.
- Learning daily to keep growing.
Every organisation loves a growth person. If you are proactively learning (not on company time but on your own) new ways to better the organisation you are in, you will most likely succeed beyond your imagination.
- Ignore all comparisons with other organisations.
Focus solely on bettering your current organisation.
Buddha once said that the way to happiness is actually quite simple; the secret is to learn to want what you have and not want what you don’t have.
So, remember, the grass is neither greener here or there. It is greener only in places where you water them. My advice is: Don’t compare yourself to others. Compare yourself to the person you were yesterday.
Here are my top five reasons why you must stop your habit of comparing yourself to others:
- Comparisons are meaningless
We usually compare the worst we know of ourselves to the best of others and become envious. Or, we compare our strengths with the weakness of others and become proud.
- Comparisons are a waste of time
When we compare, we lose precious time which could be used to pursue our goals. Our focus gets blurred and we end up trying to “keep up with the Joneses” instead of executing our work.
- Comparison is a losing battle
There is an endless number of people who will have “more”. You will drive yourself into a spiral down into misery land and the grave.
- Comparisons result in anger
When we compare, we get upset and feel mistreated. We start resenting and soon anger appears. Anger unleashed is usually a recipe for disaster.
- Comparisons deprive us of happiness
Happiness is achieved only when your focus is on yourself and your blessings. Comparisons are the opposite where the focus is on someone else.