Strategic Partnership

The One About The Squeeze

November 15, 2022

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[1], 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.

The Game-changer

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.[2]

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

Cheers, 

Preston


[1] 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.

[2] 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.

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How to Move from a Business Relationship to a Strategic Partnership

February 9, 2019

I attended a team reunion in sunny Sandestin, Florida. It was an excellent time to reminisce and reflect on one of my favorite periods in my career. Why? As a team, we accomplished great things. Personally, I was considered a strategic business partner and was empowered to make a difference. Before I tell you about the reunion, let me give you a little context…

In 2001, I was my company’s representative in Montgomery, AL, responsible for gaining alignment, developing relationships, and delivering positive business results with the local bottler. A more massive bottler recently acquired the family-owned operation. The family ownership was well respected, had great community relationships, and delivered outstanding customer service.

The transition didn’t go smoothly when the new bottler took over operations. The new operators lost credibility with the customers and the community because of missed deliveries, inferior execution, high turnover, and many broken promises. Most of the original leadership team was released, and new leaders were assigned to clean up the mess. 

I was part of the new leadership team assigned to turn things around and knew I was stepping into a challenging situation. The relationship between the company and its bottlers was tenuous. I knew that to become a trusted team member, I’d need to win their hearts by investing time with the bottler’s leaders and connecting with them personally. I started by learning about the local market, going on trade rides to get a sense of what the front-line associates needed, asking many questions, listening, and breaking bread together – the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, right?

I quickly realized that the new Montgomery market leaders were the real deal. To gain a seat at the table and align with them, I provided thought-leading insights and value-creating solutions to help the business grow. I built credibility with the team leader. Over time, I was entrusted with developing and driving the local market strategy and stewarding key marketing asset relationships (e.g., University of Alabama, Auburn University). I’d moved from just aligning with the bottler’s leadership team to become their strategic business partner. 

How? Through being trustworthy, sharing a common purpose, promoting transparency, being humble, and always maintaining a sense of humor when things got tough. More on the five steps to developing strategic partnerships at the end of the story.

Our team’s execution improved significantly after a lot of hard work, and our business results exceeded expectations. The team was nationally recognized for its efforts, and a number of us were promoted due to the successful market turnaround. 

Back to the reunion…

I was honored to be part of the Sandestin, FL festivities. Only a handful of company representatives were invited to the reunion, but I was the only one to attend. It was great to see all of the people. We hugged and shared fond memories. During dinner, about 15 people stood up and shared funny stories about something that happened during our time together. We all enjoyed laughing at the stories and ourselves. 

As we went around the table, I realized that I’d be the last person to speak that evening. I sat thinking to myself, “What am I going to say that hasn’t already been said?”. . .. 

Then it hit me. Talk about partnership…

You see, my current role has me in a position to influence strategic partnerships around the globe. It’s easy for me to do because I experienced being a strategic partner with my former teammates in the room.

After a few opening comments, I started, “Thank you for modeling what a successful partnership looks like. You embraced me and gave me a seat at your table. I can’t tell you how much I appreciated it then and now.”

“Why?” I continued, “I remember unifying phrases like, ‘One team, one goal’ or the many days traveling together to different sales centers where we got to know each other. Despite all the obstacles we encountered, we accomplished much. We created shared values and a shared vision. The way you treated me and the partnership we developed modeled what success looks like.”

I went on, “I don’t say this to impress you but to impress upon you what an impact you’ve had on me. You laid the foundation for the work I’m now doing. I can pass it on. I’m leading a project helping others in North America and around the globe to build strategic partnerships – Peru, Canada, Russia, the Philippines, and beyond. Who would have thought a little kid like me in a small market like Montgomery, AL, would have such an opportunity to make a worldwide impact?”

I paused and passionately said, “Don’t ever take for granted what we had. It was special. Through our partnership, we turned around the market, and many of us went on to new opportunities because of what we did here.”

“More importantly, let’s take this one step further. It’s said that people won’t remember what you did, but they will remember how you were treated. I’ll always look fondly on our time together because I was treated well, and you embraced me as a partner. You treated me well, and for that, I am thankful.” 

That’s the truth. . .. I became a strategic business partner and ultimately a friend to all involved in our accomplishments – friendships that lasted a lifetime.

Partnerships are essential to you and your team’s success. The Bible says, “It’s better to have a partner than go it alone. Share the work, share the wealth. And if one falls down, the other helps, but if there’s no one to help, tough!” (Ecclesiastes 4:9–10 The Message). Great partnerships enable extraordinary results.

Do you want to become a strategic partner and increase the likelihood of success? I recommend following the below five steps.

  1. Become Trustworthy: Build credibility through doing what you say you’ll do and adding indispensable value. Earn your seat at the table by providing thought leadership, developing solutions, and delivering results.
  2. Unify through a Common Purpose: Clearly define where you’re headed, the collective ways of working together, and what the partnership wants to achieve – ultimately, partners want to improve their business results.
  3. Promote Transparency: Drive open and honest, two-way communication. Accept feedback as a gift. Be willing to challenge thinking and push the envelope. When faced with problems or conflict, talk things out, always focusing on the issue at hand, not the person.
  4. Be Humble: Take the position of a servant. Think less about yourself and your goals, and think more about how to help others.
  5. Keep a Sense of Humor: Remember, laughter is the shortest distance between two people. Know when to interject humor into situations and put others at ease.

If you become trustworthy, unify through a common purpose, promote transparency, be humble and keep a sense of humor, you’ll develop strategic partnerships and become a successful leader. 

And, who knows? You may even develop some life-long friendships as I did.

Do you want to learn more about growing your leadership skills? Visit my website, prestonpoore.com, today!

Cheers,

Preston

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Preston Poore

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.

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