Reputation, business strategy, corporate culture, profitability, and client satisfaction are among the many ingredients for creating a strong brand. And, although its recipe may be the world’s best-kept secret, Coca-Cola’s success is obvious, which is why Forbes voted it the world’s third most powerful brand in 2012.
In fact, Coca-Cola Company is a model bottle of success from which law firms can learn about business longevity and strategies for growth.
Coca-Cola survived 3 wars, a Great Depression, and hundreds of competitors. After World War I, the price of sugar tripled. The cost of coffee increased eightfold. But, all the while—for 70 years—customers could relax to 6.5-oz Coca-Cola for just 5 cents.
Even economists are asking, how did Coca-Cola do it?
Well, before you start a redesign in red and white, consider the following story by NPR’s Planet Money of America’s premier soda.
“In 1899, two lawyers paid a visit to the president of Coca-Cola. At the time, Coca-Cola was sold at soda fountains. But the lawyers were interested in this new idea: selling drinks in bottles. The lawyers wanted to buy the bottling rights for Coca-Cola.
The president of Coca-Cola didn’t think much of the whole bottle thing. So he made a deal with the lawyers: He’d let them sell Coca-Cola in bottles, and he’d sell them the syrup to do it. According to the terms of the deal, the lawyers would be able to buy the syrup at a fixed price. Forever.
Andrew Young, an economist at West Virginia University, says the president of Coca-Cola may have signed the contract just to get the guys out of his office.
‘Anytime you’ve got two lawyers in your office, you probably want them to leave,’ Young says. ‘And he’s saying, “I’ll sign this piece of paper if you’ll just please leave my office.”’”
First Lesson: Contracts matter
The legal insult aside, Coca-Cola reminds attorneys that contracts are at the heart of law practice.
And yet, so many firms take templates and contracts for granted. You spend hours proofing language in contracts for clients, what about your own?
It’s time to re-read your employment agreements, client contracts, and other documentation.
For global law firms, are you sure the translation holds? There’s no bigger return on investment than an accurate, experienced, and bilingual legal assistant—especially when you consider the next part of Coca-Cola’s story.
“Bottled drinks, of course, took off. And Coca-Cola was in a bind. If the bottlers or a corner store decided to raise the price of a bottle of Coca-Cola, Coca-Cola wouldn’t get any extra money.
So, if you’re Coca-Cola, you want to somehow keep the price down at 5 cents so you can sell as much syrup as possible to the bottlers. What do you do?”
The problem was, vending machines around the nation were build to accept one coin, and one coin only—5 cents. So, to change the price meant doubling the cost (which was too much, according to Coca-Cola executives) or recalling every vending machine.
The latter option was hardly viable.
Second Lesson: Remember your ethics
One of Coca-Cola’s ideas—which it implemented—was to leave vending machines as-is. But, for every 9th bottle, Coca-Cola vending machines would spit out an empty bottle. This meant the unlucky customer would be forced to put another 5 cents into the machine.
As a result of this nefarious practice, Coca-Cola would earn slightly more than 5 cents a bottle.
For law firms, there’s not vending machine for legal services. There are, however, many short-cuts in the practice of law—massaging billable hours, expensing unnecessary meals, or rounding up on time sheets. While this may improve your balance sheet, it certainly won’t help your reputation.
Coca-Cola quickly abandoned its dubious vending practices.
But, Coca-Cola still had a problem.
So, the company thought outside the box: It couldn’t change the machines, so why not change the coins?
Coca-Cola actually asked the U.S. Treasury to issue a 7.5-cent coin. Not only that, the head of Coca-Cola (who, incidentally enough, was a hunting pal of the President) even asked Eisenhower for help.
Third Lesson: Ask the stupid questions
No, the U.S. Treasury didn’t accommodate the soda-maker. But, it didn’t hurt to ask the question.
The same is true for any business. Don’t be afraid to ask the stupid questions. At one point, you may be surprised to find help where help was sought.
For young attorneys, it’s especially important to ask questions. Every idea is worth exploring—especially if it yields higher returns or wins for your firm.
Fourth Lesson: Look to your clients
In the end, the last nickel Coke seems to have been sold in 1959. If you look for the brand today, it’s prices have skyrocketed.
But, its commitment to customers has never skipped a beat.
Sure, part of its (clever) advertising strategy of papering, “Drink Coca-Cola, 5 Cents,” across the nation was to keep the price low and sell more syrup to those bottle-contract-owning lawyers. But, the other part of Coke’s motivation was to provide a beloved product at below-average prices.
Today, you can find different varieties of Coka-Cola’s original soda all over the world.
Why? Because in the U.S., the company makes its product with corn syrup to accommodate farmers. It makes sugar-based versions in Europe to satisfy demand. It comes in caffeine-free, zero calorie, and flavored versions to appease different markets.
Basically, Coca-Cola values customers like law firms should value clients. It also innovates to survive.
The history of Coca-Cola is not perfect. Yet, it does give law firms pause to think, “What can I do to make my brand stronger?”
Sometimes the answer is simply, as always, provide great service for a low price.