A WWII soldier opened a package from home on the front lines, just before the Battle of the Bulge.
Two Cheerwines were among the contents, and he and another North Carolinian downed the two bottles and went to battle. Bob Morgon was one of few soldiers to come back from that battle, and he let Cheerwine know his story. That’s the stuff legends are made of and just one of many stories in the files of the Salisbury, North Carolina, beverage company founded in 1917.
Ninety-four years later, Cheerwine, a regionally distributed cherry-flavor carbonated beverage with a cult following throughout the southeast, is enjoying the national spotlight thanks to Facebook and an article in the New York Times.
On Tuesday, the company gathered some of its best distributors, sales people, store operators, Morgan, and three generations of the Ritchie family, who still own the company, in the small town of Salisbury. The gathering was to announce Cheerwine’s latest “Be Part of the Legend” campaign, the new “Born in the South and Raised in a Glass” tagline, and that the company is expansion beyond its home state.
Tom Barbitta, vice president of marketing, walked the attendees through the new approach, from the company’s small-town roots, through Cheerwine’s Facebook presence where it has more than 65,000 friends, to the fact that Cheerwine is ready to face the big guns of the industry—Coke and Pepsi.
“Now is the time to launch the legend,” Barbitta said. “It’s a bold claim, but we made sure it is coming from the consumer side.” The Facebook page bears the claim out, with fans posting, “Ambrosia of the gods.” “It’s a religion.” “I travel nine hours to get it.”
Cheerwine (available in regular, caffeine-free, and diet) is partnering with Pepsi Bottling Ventures and Pepsi Beverage Company, where the product will soon be mixed and bottled (the secret sauce will still be created in Salisbury), as it expands into Tennessee.
Pepsi has a good flavor portfolio, Barbitta said, and Cheerwine, which remains an independent, family owned company, fits into that portfolio, enhancing it rather than competing with it.
“We will partner with the best distributors in each market and build market by market and partner by partner, building out from our core,” Barbitta said. The company’s end goal is to sell Cheerwine in all 50 states by the company’s centennial in 2017. Ambitious, but achievable, according to Barbitta.
Cheerwine started shipping into Tennessee earlier this year, launching with parties announced on Facebook, which brought in longstanding fans to generate buzz.
Cheerwine’s consumer research showed that its fans see the drink as different and out-of-the-box, a trait the company labels trickster. With that in mind, the new campaign uses its legendary stories, quirky humor, and a website with a surfer-dude vibe to educate non-North Carolinians about the product.
Restaurateurs may soon be among those falling in love with the trickster company. According to Pepsi Bottling Ventures sampling of 300 stores, fountains that included Cheerwine had sales increases of 5.5 percent. Fountains without Cheerwine posted sales decreases of 1.5 percent.
But getting to the fountains is just part of Cheerwine’s plan. Barbitta is talking to companies about Cheerwine-flavored slush drinks, milkshakes, smoothies, and more. “It’s a big opportunity for Cheerwine to provide differentiation from other products,” he said.
Despite all the changes in store for the brand, Cliff Ritchie, president and CEO, maintains that the drink will not lose its uniqueness. “We don’t go too fast,” he said. “We pave our way across the U.S. We grow with the best distributors, and Cheerwine will still be the thing to get.”
Franchised brands aren’t the only place Cheerwine wants to be.
The company will also focused on its Local Flavor program to get into iconic, local joints across the country. Cheerwine’s Facebook page will list the Local Flavor places, the concepts will display a special Cheerwine sticker, and the restaurant will be an “Official Legend” with Cheerwine.
“They are important for us. We could promote the list to our Facebook fans, give a Facebook shoutout to Local Flavor places, and then, over time, populate a directory of these places. It’s a win/win,” Barbitta said.
By Barb Freda