May 21st, 2007

More Pop for Corporate Museums

By Betsy McKay
Wall Street Journal

Coke's Exhibit Leads Trend of Bigger, Flashier, Costlier

It’s not “Pirates of the Caribbean,” but a new movie about Coke debuting here this week is expected to fill seats in the city where the product was first sold.

For eight minutes, chairs in the theater shake, squirt water and puff wind while scientists in the 3-D film, “In Search of the Secret Formula,” try to track down a list of important ingredients—the ones that go into making a Coke.

From the theater to a 29˝-foot-high contour bottle encased in a glass tower to more than 1,000 pieces of memorabilia, elaborately orchestrated schmaltz pervades the New World of Coca-Cola, a $96 million museum opening to the public Thursday. Coca-Cola Co. estimates that about a million people a year will visit the company’s shrine to itself, which is roughly the size of 1˝ football fields and located about a mile from Coke’s headquarters.

Corporate museums aren’t a new idea, and hundreds have popped up throughout the world as marketing tools thinly disguised as tourist attractions. But the Coke museum, replacing a smaller facility that closed last month, is perhaps the most ambitious combination yet of size, cost and self-promotion.

In one section, a miniature bottling line churns out samples of the company’s namesake cola, and every visitor gets an 8-ounce bottle of Coke to take home. A tasting area offers samples of about 70 drink brands produced by Coke, including a Japanese soda with vegetable juice called Vegitabeta. “Beverage connoisseurs” wearing white jackets will hand out sips of newly developed juices and other noncarbonated drinks.

Corporate museums once weren’t much flashier than a dusty set of exhibits packed into a few rooms at headquarters and visited by just a handful of bored employees or clients. Plant tours were also once a popular family pastime, but have been largely phased out due to government health and safety regulations.

The New World of Coca-Cola shows how companies are becoming increasingly aggressive at using museums and interactive technology to promote their corporate namesakes. Companies are looking for new ways to “take brand attributes and let people experience them one on one,” says Bruce Weindruch, chief executive of the History Factory in Chantilly, Va., which helps manage archives and develop corporate museums, but did not work on the new Coke facility.

Many such museums were once managed by companies’ public relations staffs, but the newer ones are generally overseen by marketing executives. “These museums have a lot more to do with brand reputation management,” says Mr. Weindruch.

Hershey Co.’s Chocolate World, started in 1973, last year updated its Great American Chocolate Tour ride with special effects and a trio of singing cows. The Pennsylvania attraction gets as many as three million visitors a year. Next year, Harley-Davidson Inc. will open a $75 million museum in Milwaukee filled with classic motorcycles and is expected to attract 350,000 visitors a year.

Stacey Schiesl, director of the Harley-Davidson Museum, said the company decided to open a museum because it sees its vast collection of more than 400 motorcycles dating to its earliest years as a way to attract both regular customers and newcomers.

Not all corporate museums survive. In January, the foundation that ran Kellogg’s Cereal City USA in Battle Creek, Mich., closed the nine-year-old museum because of debts and disappointing attendance. Kellogg Co. plans to convert it into offices.

The new Coca-Cola museum reflects a push by E. Neville Isdell, Coke’s chairman and CEO, to reassert the marketing dominance and globetrotting swagger that made Coke the world’s most-recognized product. The exhibits are designed to help the company’s recovery from years of management turmoil and lackluster ads. Mr. Isdell calls the museum a “manifestation” of Coke’s “mission, vision and values.” The company will use the museum to showcase product rollouts, including a relaunch of Vanilla Coke planned for Friday.

The entrance fee Coke plans to charge—$15 for adults ($14 by advance purchase online), $13 (or $12 online) for senior citizens and $9 (or $8 online) for children ages 5 to 12—is steep compared with other corporate museums. But fees at other museums can add up: Admission to Hershey’s Chocolate World is free, but visitors must pay to see the “Really Big 3D Show” ($5.95 for adults ages 13-61) or participate in the Hershey’s Chocolate Tasting Experience ($9.95 for all ages).

Coke says its fee is justified given the entertainment it includes—such as two movies—and that it doesn’t plan to use its museum to make a profit. It hopes ticket revenue will cover operating costs, though. The amount spent to build the New World of Coca-Cola is equivalent to about 1˝ days of Coke revenue.

The 92,000-square-foot New World of Coca-Cola is a free-standing building on the downtown spot where Coke operated an amusement park during the 1996 Olympics. Next door is the Georgia Aquarium, bankrolled by Home Depot Inc. co-founder Bernie Marcus, and Coke has donated adjacent land for a proposed civil-rights museum.

Outside is a 6-foot-4-inch, 800-pound statue of John S. “Doc” Pemberton, the Atlanta pharmacist who invented Coke in 1886. Highlights of attractions inside the sleek, airy building include a soda fountain and a prototype of the original contour bottle. Next to an Andy Warhol-themed exhibit, people can create their own pop art. At a “Milestones of Refreshment” tour showing Coke’s impact on the development of marketing and cultural history, visitors are invited to try their hand at tracing the Coca-Cola script on a computer screen.

The flashier and more interactive exhibits reflect a general trend, says Allyson Lazar, principal with Orinda Group, a museum planning firm. “You see that more and more in the museum world.” But it’s most visible in corporate museums because they have more money for the latest technology.

The old museum was hugely popular, drawing more than 13 million visitors over its more than 16 years of operation. Long lines often snaked out the door.

But by 2002, Coke decided that it wanted a bigger museum that would include fresher and more interactive exhibits. The new museum was also part of an effort to help Atlanta revitalize an area downtown. Unlike at its old World of Coca-Cola, the company plans to update its collection of artifacts from its vast archives regularly to lure repeat visitors.

Coke has preserved artifacts that poke fun at the company for its disastrous launch of New Coke in 1985, displaying them more prominently than it did previously. Video footage shows protesters brandishing “I want my old Coke” signs in front of Coke’s headquarters and pouring the drink into sidewalk drains.

But the new museum has no reference to touchy subjects, like the small amounts of cocaine originally left in the soda by the coca leaves used to make the cola. \(Phil Mooney, Coke archivist, will not comment on whether its product ever contained cocaine other than to say cocaine has never been an added ingredient.)

Another thing not mentioned: Pepsi, whose ads helped inspire the cola wars and sparked the creation of New Coke. “I’m not sure saber-rattling is what people would enjoy,” says Mark Greatrex, a senior Coke marketing executive overseeing the museum.

A Pepsi spokesman says of the snub: “Coke is 121 years old. It’s easy to be forgetful at that age.”

As for PepsiCo Inc., based in Purchase, N.Y., it doesn’t have a corporate museum. One of its bottlers runs an informal tribute to the soda’s history in the drugstore in New Bern, N.C., where Pepsi-Cola was first served to customers in 1898. Visitors can buy a fountain Pepsi there and some memorabilia, but that’s about it.

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