Sometimes in life, you make a move that is uncharacteristic but required.
I picked up the phone, dialed the number in trepidation, and asked for the president. The assistant on the other end said, “Please hold.” There was a pregnant pause before the assistant returned and said, “I’m connecting you now.”
The conversation was one I’ll never forget. Why? First, let me offer a quick backstory.
In 2001, I started my career with The Coca-Cola Company (TCCC) in Montgomery, Alabama. My mission was to collaboratively develop annual business plans with our bottling partners, align on direction, enable marketplace execution, and lead marketing asset relationships.
Marketing assets are a fantastic way to connect with consumers and a source of pride for The Coke System (i.e., the Company and its bottling partners). The assets give Coca-Cola access where consumers make memories and develop an emotional connection with the brand. Think about the last game, concert, or amusement park you attended. More than likely, you drank a Coca-Cola product while enjoying the occasion.
For context, these are three things you should know about marketing assets.
Marketing assets are expensive. TCCC and its bottling partner typically split the investment. Hence, there was always a push to gain a return on the investment.
Marketing assets are hyper-competitive. Over time, TCCC accumulated many strategic marketing assets. I always heard that we had an embarrassment of riches. But that meant our primary competitor was forever eager to convert an asset from red (i.e., Coke-owned) to blue (i.e., Pepsi-owned) when partnership agreements expired.
Marketing assets are exigent. Big word, I know. It means that business relationships require attention. Effective partnerships stem from being connected and creating mutually beneficial value. If the parties disconnect, one may take the other for granted, engagements become transactional, and the relationship will eventually erode.
Enter the #1 Marketing Asset
The University of Alabama was the number one marketing asset in the state of Alabama, and The Crimson Tide had a legendary partnership with Coca-Cola.
For example, Head Football Coach Bear Bryant used to drink Coca-Cola and eat Golden Flake potato chips during his weekly TV show. The ultimate product placement. And “Great Pair Says the Bear” was the ultimate product endorsement.
But after Coach Bryant retired and the University of Alabama Football program’s success moderated, so did the relationship between Coca-Cola and the UA Athletic Department.
A head coach carousel ensued with names like Perkins, Curry, Dubose, Franchione, Price, and Shula. But no one could restore Alabama Football glory. The only exception was Gene Stallings, who rebuilt the program, regained national prominence, and won the 1992 National Football Championship.
Simultaneously, Pepsi slowly and quietly built relationships behind the scenes with the University of Alabama’s key stakeholders. And Pepsi improved its market share across the State of Alabama, making inroads with customers and consumers.
Everything changed slowly and then all at once. The tipping point came in 1998.
The Coca-Cola and UA pouring rights contract expired and went out to bid. Quite possibly the worst thing to happen to the current contract holder. It typically means that costs will rise, and it’s a signal that relationships are fractured.
By the way, I bet you are wondering what’s the big deal about pouring rights. They grant a supplier the right to provide beverages (fountain and bottled drinks) and marketing exclusivity in the sports venues.
Astonishingly, Pepsi won the pouring rights contract for 10 years. Even after all the history with Coke.
Then, Pepsi was shocked.
When they signed the pouring rights agreement, they assumed that the University would also award them the out-of-venue media and marketing rights.
Not so fast.
Coca-Cola held the out-of-venue media and marketing rights in a separate contract with Crimson Tide Sports Marketing. CTSM was responsible for all the game radio broadcasts and weekly coaches’ TV shows. They purchased the media and marketing rights to advertise out-of-venue from UA and, in turn, sold them to sponsors like Coca-Cola.
The not-so-good news was that Coca-Cola was left hanging by a thread. Coke was out-maneuvered by Pepsi to win the pouring rights.
But a circumstance of pure serendipity happened. The CTSM contract enabled Coke to maintain a relationship with UA and allowed our team to market the Coca-Cola and University of Alabama association.
We were still in the game.
But the marketing and media rights contract was about to expire soon. We needed to think and act fast.
Earlier, I referenced UA as the number one marketing asset in the State of Alabama. Why? Consumers connected with the brand more than any other. If we could effectively market our association, it’d increase Coke’s brand preference, translating into improved sales.
But how? We recognized that the CTSM contract was in jeopardy. It was up for renewal, and we knew Pepsi would pay anything to secure the contract.
Our job was to show UA how Coca-Cola creates value beyond just a big payment. We needed to flex our marketing muscle, which was our competitor’s weakness.
A Bridge to the Future
In pre-strategy development meetings with UA, we discovered they were concerned about the next-generation Alabama fans. The football team’s legacy was fading, and a nationwide survey found that Bear Bryant would all but be forgotten by the class of 2007. UA needed to establish relevance with younger consumers. We could help them do just that and build a bridge to the future.
Our team developed a comprehensive, four-pronged marketing approach to connect and recruit the next generation focusing on four levels: Statewide, the City of Tuscaloosa, the University of Alabama campus, and Gameday. Our campaign slogan was “Tide Tradition.”
We presented the strategy and campaign to the UA Athletic Director, Assistant AD, and Head Football Coach. They loved it. They also wanted to see if we would execute it.
That’s when the fun part began.
We implemented a statewide Fall Football promotion featuring the University of Alabama logos on Coca-Cola packaging and point-of-sale material, invested in Tuscaloosa customer agreements and community interests, executed on-campus dining and vending programs, hired a campus ambassador, and activated “Coca-Cola Kickoff on the Quad,” an interactive gameday experience including inflatables, games and sampling.
The marketing strategy was successful. We literally changed the landscape. As a matter of fact, the plan was the first of its kind. It became the model for other College and University marketing activation nationwide.
One thing remained undone. The CTSM contract. While the renewal was verbally awarded to us, it wasn’t ever signed by the University. At any time, UA could have pulled the plug and awarded the media and marketing rights to Pepsi.
A group of Coca-Cola executives, myself included, met with Dr. Robert Witt, the University of Alabama President. Our meeting agenda included sharing Coke’s successful marketing strategy and how our partnership benefited the University. We also wanted to explore Dr. Witt’s thoughts about the future and how we could help.
After an enthusiastic and productive conversation, Dr. Witt produced a 6-pk of LSU Football National Championship 8 oz glass bottles. He said the 6-pack was sent by LSU’s president, reminding Dr. Witt of LSU’s recent accomplishment. Dr. Witt paused and said, “I want to bring both of these back to the University of Alabama, a national football championship and Coca-Cola into Bryant-Denny stadium where it belongs.”
Then, Dr. Witt revealed a surprise. He said his nephew worked for Coca-Cola. “Who?” I asked. “He’s your campus ambassador and is having a wonderful experience. Thank you for all that you’re teaching him.” I had no idea we’d hired Dr. Witt’s nephew. Another moment of serendipity.
Dr. Witt concluded our conversation with an appreciation for the historic partnership between UA and Coca-Cola and what we were doing to build a bridge to the future. He looked at me and said, “If you ever need anything, just call.”
We left the meeting not knowing how valuable his last statement would be.
Six months went by. I continued to press CTSM, the UA Assistant Athletic Director, and University General Counsel to sign the agreement. I ran into barriers and delays. It seemed as if some backroom deal with Pepsi was in the works. I felt responsible for securing the contract so we could all move on.
Then it hit me. Why not call Dr. Witt and take him up on his offer to help? I was aware of the political damage I might do by going over the heads of key stakeholders. But desperate times call for desperate measures. This move would be uncharacteristic of me but required. Time to take a risk.
Out of impulse, I picked up the phone, dialed the number in trepidation, and asked for Dr. Witt. The assistant on the other end said, “Please hold.” There was a pregnant pause before the assistant returned and said, “I’m connecting you now.”
“Hello, this is Bob Witt. How can I help you?”
I re-introduced myself and told Dr. Witt about our challenge with the contract signature delay. He said he understood and would call me back in 10 minutes.
Ten minutes seemed like an eternity. All kinds of thoughts rushed through my mind. Surely, I’d overstepped my boundaries and would aggravate my constituents. Bottling Partner leadership won’t look kindly on my approach. University personnel will call for my replacement. I may be demoted or even fired. All unlikely, but those are the thoughts that went through my head.
The phone rang. I picked it up and, with a frog in my throat, said, “Hello.”
“Preston, Bob Witt again. I talked to the University General Counsel, the contract will be signed today, and final copies will be sent to you immediately.”
I was dumbfounded.
I replied, “Terrific, and thanks for your help. I spent almost two years working to have the contract signed. It only took you 10 minutes.”
What Dr. Witt said next always stuck with me. Wait for it…
“SOMETIMES YOU JUST GOTTA SQUEEZE THEM BY THE BALLS.”
I couldn’t help but laugh out loud. He snickered as well. I thanked him for his help, and we hung up.
What a game-changer!
Dr. Witt accomplished what I couldn’t in a matter of minutes. He had the authority to make something happen. Dr. Witt fulfilled his offer to help. He applied the pressure (i.e., squeezed) as required.
The signed contract arrived the next day. And I never faced any repercussions for going around the UA key stakeholders.
That was the last time I talked to Dr. Witt before moving to my next role. I’ll always look back fondly on those times. Not only did the Coke team out-maneuver our competition and secure the media and marketing rights, but we also created a beachhead for a future team to eventually regain exclusive athletic venue pouring, campus dining / vending, and marketing rights in 2018.
What I Learned
Position matters. I’ve often said that influence is leadership without the crutch of authority. But influence has its limitations. While I’d established credibility and grown my influence with UA key stakeholders, I couldn’t ever advance the UA marketing contract to the final signature on my own. No amount of influence I tried to exert mattered. Dr. Witt held the top position at the University of Alabama. He had the authority to make things happen with just one short phone call. A friend once said, “It’s good to know the king.” Dr. Witt’s position mattered.
Persistence pays off. It took two years from receiving the verbal agreement to the day the contract was consummated. And it took another 15 years for Coke to restore its storied relationship with UA. The team’s persistence paid off. If we didn’t fight hard to create the beachhead for the next group to advance the relationship, the campus and city would have indeed turned blue. And Coke would have missed what the future held, Nick Saban and six National Football Championships.
Providence plays out. Looking back, I’m amazed at how circumstances unfolded during my years working with the University of Alabama. In the above article, I referred to providence as serendipity. But events like Coke retaining the marketing rights even though Pepsi thought they secured them or hiring Dr. Witt’s relative as our campus ambassador without our knowledge of who he was weren’t mere chance. I’m convinced there is a higher power at work engineering all circumstances. The hand of providence played out.
Visit my website to discover more lessons I learned in the marketplace trenches: prestonpoore.com
 Mike Price was hired to replace Dennis Franchione for the 2003 season. He was quickly dismissed after a well-documented off-the-field incident. My only memory of Coach Price was when we held a Coca-Cola Fall Football sales rally in the Bryant-Denny Stadium locker room. Price was our guest speaker, and our intent for him was to inspire our local sales team. When it was time for him to address the crowd, he pulled out a Pepsi-Cola 20 oz bottle, threw it against the lockers, and yelled, “F**K Pepsi.” We were in shock. Not the way to start a talk. Extremely unprofessional. I shook my head in disbelief and wondered what we were getting into. Needless to say, Coach Price didn’t last very long.
 Working with The University of Alabama was a personal passion of mine. When I was young, I watched Alabama football games with my dad. He always pointed out Bear Bryant on the sidelines and talked favorably about him. And most of my extended relatives lived in Alabama. When I moved to Alabama in 1989, I was told I needed to pick Alabama or Auburn (IYKYK). I picked Alabama. But most importantly, my bride went to The University of Alabama. We were season ticket holders and attended the 1992 National Championship game in New Orleans versus The University of Miami. I guess you could say I married “it” (i.e., a passion for all things UA). All of this before working with Coke and leading The University of Alabama relationship for a few years. It was an honor.> Read More
Trust is the bedrock of every strong relationship.
Let that sink in…
Trust is at the core of all personal and professional relationships. With it, you can achieve great things with others. Without it, you’ll go nowhere.
Do you remember a time when the trust was absent or broken? I do.
I once worked with a group of people. Notice that I wrote a group of people– we weren’t a team. Our manager was a self-serving individual more worried about making a great impression with upper management. Again, notice that I wrote manager– the individual didn’t have a lick of leadership in her bones.
Our group was filled with discord and gossip. We lacked priorities and direction. Our roles weren’t clear. Our business partner didn’t understand or value our business contribution. We were distracted by an underperforming co-worker who created a drag on the group’s overall effectiveness. There was no recognition of our hard work, let alone a pat on the back for a job well done. Lastly, our business results didn’t meet expectations.
Trust was nowhere to be found. We were going nowhere.
After several co-workers left or were exited, I found myself the only one that our manager could rely on to get things done. The burden became very heavy. Combined with the suffocating environment, over-work, and lack of appreciation, I started to burn out.
I was doing everything I could to be a positive influence, but I was met with resistance around every corner. I began to lose hope that things would get better. I remember feeling broken and desperate. I’d come to the end of my rope and was ready to leave the company.
Then, I remember praying and telling God about my circumstances. I got the sense that I should hold on. I wasn’t sure what hold on meant or why. But at that moment, I resolved to take things day by day and not give up.
The next day was my birthday. When I arrived at work, my manager called me into her office and delivered the news. She told me that she was relocating to another city and that I’d have a new manager soon.
I can still recall the rush of relief that washed over me. What a great birthday present! I thought to myself—a new hope. Light at the end of the tunnel, and it wasn’t an oncoming train. I was instantly optimistic about the future.
A few weeks later, I was appointed to a new team and leader.
Yes, a team and leader – a huge difference.
Immediately, my new manager, Ron, came to visit and conduct my annual review. My former manager completed the review document before she transferred, but Ron’s responsibility was to facilitate the discussion. I was very apprehensive, thinking that Ron would let me go.
Ron held the review in his hand as we began our interaction. He told me that he disagreed with my former manager’s assessment, and he acknowledged the hostile work environment in which I’d suffered. Despite the circumstances, he said I was still recognized as a top performer; he believed in me and wanted me to be part of his new team. Ron set down the review document and said that what my former manager wrote didn’t matter now. Then, he asked me if I wanted a fresh start and invited me to his new team kickoff in Atlanta. I eagerly nodded yes and thanked him for inviting me.
Upon my arrival at the kickoff, I recall sitting around a conference table, feeling excited and reserved at the same time. I’d heard that Ron was a great leader and could develop strong teams. My experience made me doubt strong leadership and teamwork were possible. I needed to see the proof in the pudding.
And the proof began…
Ron went first by sharing his family, values, experiences, and passion for the University of Tennessee. He asked for volunteers (pun intended) to share something about ourselves with the team. As folks opened up, I was amazed at everyone’s vulnerability and the sense of personal connection. We laughed a bunch. It was a fun conversation, and I appreciated relating to the team.
Then, Ron transitioned to discuss his team vision. He handed out a paper that outlined the team’s values, direction, destination, and expectations. As a team, we discussed and aligned to the proposed vision. Then, he encouraged us to focus on others, not ourselves, to serve rather than be served. He emphasized teamwork, prioritization, fun, and most of all, trust.
I hadn’t been in a trusting environment for a while. It’d been dog-eat-dog for so long. But Ron’s approach inspired me to follow him and become a team player.
During the next two years, the words on the page came to life. The time was some of the most enjoyable and memorable of my career. Our team collaborated, built strong partnerships, had a lot of fun, achieved great business results, and I grew by leaps and bounds.
For example, we hosted the NCAA Final Four, where I chauffeured Derek Whittenburg, a member of the 1983 North Carolina State Men’s Basketball national championship team, to events, hung out with American Idol’s Ryan Seacrest, and attended a Maroon 5 concert with the team. To top it off, our business performance results were so strong that we won a Disney World incentive for all of our families. Because of trust, we achieved more together than we could have apart.
At the end of my time on Ron’s team, I sent him a note that said, “I didn’t think it was possible to work for an inspiring leader and trust others as I do now. You’ve restored my ability to trust. Thank you for believing in me and giving me a fresh start.” Ron’s been a friend and mentor ever since.
I asked Ron the other day about his memory of the circumstances and his role. He told me, “My view of the situation was that it was the team and each person who did the heavy lifting and hard work to make things happen. I only helped facilitate and enable great people to do great work together.” Again, this exemplifies his humility and leadership.
If you’re ever faced with an opportunity to build or restore trust, I recommend you:
- Be Real. Let others know who you are, your values and what you stand for. Share your dreams, passions, desires, goals, experiences, successes, and failures. Go first and let go. Risk vulnerability with others, and they will reciprocate.
- Establish Credibility. Be who you say you are. Ensure that the audio matches the video – your actions match your words. Do what you say you’ll do. Practice what you preach. Keep your commitments. Follow through. Earn respect by helping others solve problems, set direction, define roles and responsibilities, prioritize, make sound decisions, remove barriers and place the team’s agenda ahead of your own – put people first.
- Enable Collaboration. Create a trusting environment where people feel safe, failure and learnings are valued, opinions or ideas are openly shared, and folks must rely on one another. Help people reach their potential and, as a team, collaborate to achieve more than dreamed possible.
I’ve experienced what it’s like to trust and not trust. I flourished under a strong leader who taught me the value of building trust with others and the powerful impact on all relationships.
How about you? Are you trustworthy? What would your team, your family, or friends say? Does your team trust one another? How do you know?
Remember, trust is the bedrock of all relationships. With it, you can achieve great things with others. Without it, you’ll go nowhere.
If you are real with others, establish credibility, and enable collaboration, you’ll become a trust-building leader.
Want to discover more about building trust and becoming a leader others will gladly follow? Visit my website, prestonpoore.com, today!
Preston> Read More
I’m a disciple of Christ and an executive at a Fortune 500 Company. In my blog, The Discipled Leader, I draw on my diverse business experience to help Christians connect their secular and spiritual lives at work.
As a certified coach, speaker, and trainer with the John Maxwell Team, I help others grow their relationship with Christ, develop their leadership skills, and understand how they can make a positive difference in today’s chaotic world.
Let me help you reach your potential.
I draw on my diverse business experience to help Christians connect their secular and spiritual lives at work. I invite you to subscribe to my blog and learn how to develop Christlike character, influence your culture and change your world.