'Coke Is It!': Anxious Newspapers Hire Coca-Cola Marketing Guru

By Nicholson, Joe | Editor & Publisher, May 1, 1999 | Go to article overview

'Coke Is It!': Anxious Newspapers Hire Coca-Cola Marketing Guru


Nicholson, Joe, Editor & Publisher


NAA hopes Sergio Zyman, who doubled Coke's sales and stock price, can discover a way to stop the circulation slide

The Newspaper Association of America (NAA) has hired Sergio Zyman, the marketing guru behind Coca-Cola's resurgence, as the mastermind of a $11.5 million effort to see if techniques used to sell soft drinks can be used to sell newspapers.

With circulation stagnant or declining at many newspapers, the tradition-bound industry is switching from stodgy promotions into what some publishers seem to view as marketing outer space with Sergio Zyman.

John F. Sturm, NAA president and CEO, introduced Zyman to 1,200 participants at the group's annual convention last week in San Diego, saying, "Ladies and gentlemen, everyone in this room knows we must adapt and we must change in order to succeed."

Richard D. Gottlieb, the outgoing NAA chairman, called Zyman "the Mark McGwire of marketing."

Unlike the NAA officials who stood behind lecturns on either side of the stage, Zyman moved electrically around the stage, captivating the crowd with tales of his exploits at Coca-Cola. He drew laughter with folksy humor, bewilderment at his New Age marketing terminology, and hopeful applause.

Zyman led Coca-Cola marketing for more than a decade and spearheaded the launch of Diet Coke as well as the campaigns, "Coke is It!" and "Always Coca-Cola."

In his speech, Zyman said he helped boost global Coke sales from nine billion to 15 billion cases over five years. People in different countries bought Coke for different reasons, he said, adding that poor people in one country viewed Coke, which contains sugar, as food.

When he took several questions from the stage after his speech, one conference participant asked Zyman if he worried about the health consequences of people drinking too much Coke. Zyman replied that there was "no scientific proof" of harm.

After Zyman stepped down from the stage, he was surrounded by publishers and executives who asked earnest questions about what they should do. As Zyman had during this speech, he responded with a sweeping description of his marketing philosophy but avoided specific prescriptions for ailing newspapers.

In an interview with E&P, Zyman says he will begin by "analyzing the research" that already exists on circulation and the public perception about what is newspapers' "core product."

Then Zyman plans to obtain additional research and "build a template," or model, for newspaper executives around the country to use in building circulation. The model, he explains, will be a "paint-by-the- numbers marketing plan" that local executives can use to "increase the relevance of newspapers, increase circulation."

Asked how well local newspaper executives know how to market their papers, he says, "I don't know the answer to that. My guess is it is varied. You know, you newspaper guys are involved in running the presses efficiently and getting the paper out on time. Making sure you do whatever you do. There's very little time."

"The marketing people at newspapers are sales guys," he adds. "There are no branding guys."

William S. Morris III, the NAA's new chairman and the owner of Augusta- based Morris Communications Corporation, says Zyman and his firm, the Z Group, were hired as consultants "to make newspapers more relevant to try to stop the downslide that we've had in readership. We've hired him for NAA to do that."

NAA president Sturm says that he wasn't ready to "predict" the industry will follow Zyman but adds, "What he said is that you have to be constantly reinventing and repositioning yourself. …

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