Lessons from Coca-Cola

I’ve been doing a lot of reading this year. Mostly I’ve been finding books at the library, but I also decided it might be time to actually read some of the books on my book shelves. We had a bit of a used book addiction when we were first married and amassed quite a library of books that we had no hope of ever getting around to reading. Though if my reading habits of this year keep pace for a while, I could get there.

Anyway, one of the books I picked up cheap a while ago was For God, Country and Coca-Cola: The Unauthorized History of the Great American Soft Drink and the Company That Makes It. The title’s a mouthful and so was the book (up until that point I’d been reading two to three books a week—it took me two and half weeks just to get through this book), but it did offer some engaging insights into the history of a an American icon.

A few interesting moments from Coke’s history:

  • The initial Coca-Cola business involved selling syrup to soda fountains that added the carbonated water and ultimately mixed the drink. The company was not interested in bottling Coke and selling it in bottles or cans at the grocery store, to the point that when enterprising and persistent bottlers came to Coke, the company practically gave away the bottling franchise in a perpetual contract that would cause them headaches for decades to come. As you can imagine, the bottling business soon surpassed soda fountains.
  • The familiar Coca-Cola bottle was developed and trademarked as a way to discourage imitators who kept trying to borrow everything distinctive about Coke–the red color, the diamond-shaped label, the scripted font and even the words “coca” and “cola”. While the company’s efforts to trademark each of these components met with some limited success, trademarking the bottle was a brilliant and effective move, cutting off the imitators.
  • During World War II, Coca-Cola was considered vital to the war effort as a morale booster to the troops. So much so that Coca-Cola men were given technical observer status and Coke and the Army partnered to build bottling plants behind the advancing Allied troops, all to keep the Coke flowing to the men in uniform.
  • While Coke adamantly refused to develop other drinks until the 1950s and 60s, Fanta was developed during World War II by the German branch of Coca-Cola that was nationalized by the Nazis. The drink was created to fill the gap left by sugar shortages and take advantage of what scarce resources were available, namely fruit.
  • Coca-Cola had at least three opportunities to outright buy Pepsi Cola and shut down their primary competitor (a tactic they employed on other occasions). They never did. While this seems like an enormous mistake, it’s likely some other competitor would have filled Pepsi’s shoes. Also, the rivalry with Pepsi is credited with spurring the company on to greater creative heights.
  • The New Coke debacle of the 1980s when the company dared to change the formula of America’s soft drink gets detailed treatment. While the new formula seemed like a sure success, beating both Pepsi and old Coke in blind taste tests, the company didn’t pay attention to its own research that said Coke drinkers hated change.

Why the Ending of The Hunger Games Sucked

With The Hunger Games movie coming out this week it seems like a good time to talk about why I think the ending sucked. Such a topic is obviously going to be spoiler laden, so consider this your SPOILER ALERT.

I read The Hunger Games series last summer in an intense burst, much like everyone else. It’s a unique and engaging story and I liked that it was doing something different. It’s also interesting to see such a dark tale be so popular.

I loved the first installment of the series, but I think it should have ended there. Throughout the book Katniss and Peeta have this awkward relationship. He loves her but the rules of the game mean that they are opponents—to the death. But this gets upended when they change the rules mid-game and Katniss and Peeta can work together. They do and their relationship blossoms, if only for the watching cameras.

Then at the very climax of the ending the rules are changed once again on poor Katniss and Peeta and they’re forced to battle to the death. Katniss refuses to play by their rules and chooses suicide, an action that would be witnessed on live TV and threaten to overturn the brutal regime.

There’s a moment there where she’s going to follow through, she’s going to do it. And in that moment The Hunger Games had the potential to be brilliant. It was a decidedly Romeo & Juliet moment and it would have been the perfect ending.

But no.

The gamemakers step in, they realize what she’s about to do, what it will mean, and they stop her. They declare both her and Peeta winners and an uneasy peace is formed. Katniss and Peeta have survived, but now they’re political targets. They’ll live to see another day… and another installment in the series.

Call my cynical, but that’s what I see in this ending. Instead of ending with a perfect moment, a powerful statement and killing off the main characters and letting it be an ending, we get a lesser ending so the story can be turned into a series. I know that’s what sells in the industry right now. I know that’s the latest rage and it makes economic sense as well. But I think it sucks. I think The Hunger Games goes downhill with the two sequels, Catching Fire and Mockingjay. It turn into this whole political game and it’s not nearly as engaging. It sells more books certainly, but they’re not as good.

As a reader, I want a good ending. And The Hunger Games had the potential to have an amazing ending. I wish it would have ended in that moment. It’s nice to see more of your characters, but sometimes you need to let it end. Sometimes it’s better to let us imagine what happens instead of showing us (sounds like a lesson we should have learned about the Star Wars prequel).

It’s still a great series and a good book and I’m hoping to go see the movie. I just wish it could have been more. Sometimes less is so much more.

Dealing with Mistakes

I hate making mistakes. Yesterday I made a mistake, sending an email to a few thousand people with a broken link. Doh. I had to spend a few hours scrambling and doing damage control, sending out a second email fixing the problem and dealing with some fallout from people using the broken link. It wasn’t a huge deal—nobody got hurt, nobody lost money—but it did cause some problems.

As much as I hate making mistakes like that and feel bad that it happened, there are always lessons to be learned.

Find Solutions
First and foremost, the best way to respond to a mistake is with solutions. Whenever my daughter is complaining about something I tell her to fix the problem or stop complaining. There’s no sense standing around whining about something. Either fix it or shut up (though I try to be a little more diplomatic than that).

As soon as I realized what happened I emailed my team and proposed a few solutions.

Be Responsive
I think the next thing you can do is be responsive to what needs to be done. I was going to say act fast, but I don’t think speed is always what’s needed. Sometimes we overreact to mistakes because we respond too quickly without thinking. But you do need to be responsive—answer emails, explain what’s going on, get on the phone if you need to. Be prepared to respond.

I spent the morning dealing with this, putting aside other projects so I could respond to questions as they came in.

Stop it From Happening Again
Once you’ve responded and fixed the problem, it’s important to make sure it doesn’t happen again. Is there anything you could have done to stop it? Sometimes we create layers and layers of checks to avoid mistakes and it gets to be too much. But sometimes a simple double-check can avoid the headache.

Look for the Silver Lining
Sometimes good things happen because of a mistake. In this case we found a bug thanks to the broken link. Sometimes it’s as simple as you learn to be more careful next time. But there’s always a lesson. I have another project that’s shaping up to be a failure (well, maybe not a failure, but it’s far from a success), but instead of shaking our heads and pointing fingers, we’re learning a lot of lessons.

If you’re not learning from failures and mistakes, well, you’re in trouble.

Lessons from a Reader: What Happens Next?

One of the most disappointing things as a reader is getting completely engrossed in a story and then it ends. You were completely into the story and following the characters and the plot finally resolves itself and it was amazing.

But then it’s over.

The elation of reading such a thrilling story is now countered by the disappointment that it’s over. So one of the greatest things an author can do is slowly pull you back out of the engrossing world of the story.

Sometimes it doesn’t require much. But the longer your story, the more it’s necessary. My all-time favorite example is the Scouring of the Shire at the end of Lord of the Rings. After following Frodo for 900 pages of walking, ring whining and orc gutting, the story can’t just end. And Tolkien gives his readers one last adventure. You know the story is over, the tension that carried you through those 900 pages is over, but you still want more. And Tolkien delivers with one last hurrah.

Ashfall by Mike Mullin delivers a more common example. It took 400 pages to reunite Alex with his family after a volcano erupts in Yellowstone and the story could have ended there. But instead we get another 50 pages that wind the story down, giving us closure (and nicely leaving room for the sequel).

These closing scenes let us emotionally process the story. After the climax, you need things to wind down a bit, to know where these characters are going to go. It doesn’t have to be long, but one last glimpse of where they’re going is gold.

PS, an epilogue is a cheap and rushed way to do it. Especially if your epilogue leaps forward in time to conveniently tie off questions like who marries who (J.K. Rowling, I’m looking at you).