Mr. Cola killed my pop

2020-10-17 — Greg Gaughan

I like pop. I used to drink it every lunchtime. The worst place to buy pop is from a place with a "Coke fridge". My heart sinks when I see one. Everything in there will be from a small, prescribed selection of boring, globalised, bland drinks. The best place to buy pop is from a place with a "free-house" fridge. They're usually a bit shabbier, and are becoming rarer, but promise variety and taste. There could be anything in there: drinks you may not have heard of, as well as flavoursome ones like Irn Bru and Vimto.

For a while I used to go to a Marks and Spencer's (M&S) for lunch and so bought their pop. They have a great selection: ginger beer, cranberry lemonade, orange, cloudy lemonade and cola. Each of these comes in a diet variety which doesn't taste like battery acid like other diet drinks. I'd rotate through the flavours but preferred the cola: it actually had a cola flavour - unlike Coca-Cola which paled in comparison.

Then, around 2016, I'm not sure exactly when, their cola disappeared. Gone. Vanished. The other flavours were still there, but no cola. Weird.

The nice ones - no more cola though

I did notice at the same time that Coke appeared in its place. Marks and Spencer never sold Coke before then. Why would they when they had a better version? If their orange had been replaced by Tango or their ginger beer by Idris for example, that wouldn't have been so bad. But their cola and Coke were polar opposites in flavour: it was the worst one to replace. Obviously I didn't buy the insipid usurper and so cola was gone, but not forgotten, from my lunch rotation.

Cuckoo Coke is now stocked at eye-level and the nice pops, cola-less, are relegated to the bottom shelf

I thought it might be temporary, or just in my region, but no. The good cola had been replaced throughout the UK (or Europe for all I know). Wow. That was some shelf-prioritisation marketing pressure, I thought, but maybe I can still get the good cola from the back of the shop. I asked the staff but no one was aware of the swap. I looked online expecting some kind of campaign on behalf of people up-in-arms about losing their tasty cola, but nothing. And still in 2020 there is no mention of it online. I can barely find a picture of the old M&S cola, let alone an article about its loss.

If I search the M&S website I get:

"We found 0 results for cola, but here's what we found for cool".

So I keep digging over the years, because I really miss the cola flavour and wonder why no one else does, and still nothing. Until today - I find a clue; I make a possible link; an explanation, perhaps.

In 2014, Coca-Cola sales were down 10% in the UK and down 5% in Europe. Their new Coca-Cola Life, a lower-calorie version, wouldn't do so well and a UK sugar tax was on the horizon. Clearly a better tasting M&S cola with an equally nice diet version would be strong competition for Coke. But how to compete when you have an inferior product?

I discover that the CEO of M&S in February 2015, Marc Bolland, joined the board of The Coca-Cola Company as Director for European sales. A year later he retired as CEO of Marks and Spencer, effective April 2016. So he was being paid by M&S for a year and was "available for consulting work with the company for the first three months after his exit."

Marc Bolland acquired 10,000 shares in Coca-Cola in February 2015 ($420,000 worth), perhaps that was part of becoming a director there. But he was still CEO of M&S at the time - surely there's a conflict of interest in colas?

Did the CEO of M&S who was also a director of Coca-Cola, and was going to leave M&S, kill M&S cola and replace it with Coke? He seemed to be in charge at both places at the time of the nice cola's usurping. Did he have to do it? Why did no one at M&S stop him? Why not just add Coke for a trial period alongside the M&S cola? Coca-Cola UK sales in 2018 were £1.5bn: this is big business. He's still at Coca Cola. The shares went from $43 each and steadily rose to $59 (pre-covid). Coke did very well with M&S cola out of the way.

Marc Bolland is an anagram of "Mr. A Bland Cola".

It seems this isn't the only time Coca-Cola have killed off their better-tasting competitors using dodgy methods. Virgin Cola met a similar fate (my emphasis):

Then Virgin Cola started disappearing off of shelves, says Branson. Not because customers were buying it, but because its competition was willing to go to any length to undermine it. Coke

"went to retailers. They gave them offers they couldn’t refuse. And literally Tescos that had shelves and shelves of Virgin Cola, suddenly they just had no Virgin Cola on the shelves. And it was a very systematic kneecapping job,"

says Branson.

This is not fair competition. The better colas are not winning. I, the cola consumer, am losing out.

Be brave M&S with your new, hopefully unbuyable CEO and please bring back your cola. You can keep the other one if you must. Call yours "Cola, the nice one".

Tags: Drinks