Collecting the Real Thing: a Case Study Exploration of Brand Loyalty Enhancement Among Coca-Cola Brand Collectors


Jan S. Slater (2000) ,"Collecting the Real Thing: a Case Study Exploration of Brand Loyalty Enhancement Among Coca-Cola Brand Collectors", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 27, eds. Stephen J. Hoch and Robert J. Meyer, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 202-208.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 27, 2000      Pages 202-208


Jan S. Slater, Ohio University

Considered by many to be the quintessential international brand, Coca-Cola transcends ethnicity, gender, age, education and social class. True to its present advertising slogan, it seems there has "always" been Coca-Cola.

The history of this American icon is a textbook case study in building, managing and maintaining a brand. Since its introduction in 1886, Coca-Cola has become a powerful brand, with an image imbued with added values, the discriminating benefits that go beyond the functionality of a refreshing soft drink (Jones, 1986). Coca-Cola is seen as traditional, patriotic, friendly, and above all, American. In fact, internationally and at home, Coca-Cola is part of many consumer’s everyday American lifestyle. The strong brand image and the distinctive taste of this soft drink has made Coca-Cola not only the best-selling soft drink in the world, but the world’s number one brand (Allen, 1994).

One reason Coca-Cola hs achieved such market success is the strong relationship it has with consumers. In today’s marketplace where the cola wars still exist, more than 80 soft drink brands converge on grocer’s shelves. Coca-Cola has remained on top in part because of brand loyal consumers. Brand loyalty has long been a central construct to marketing. It has been defined as "a measure of the attachment that a customer has to a brand" (Aaker, 1991, p. 3). In short, keep the consumer satisfied and he/she will buy regularly. But brand loyalty in the 90’s marketplace has been more difficult to develop and maintain. Explanations for this loyalty dilemma may include the following:

* Consumers are savvy shoppers and are more price-conscious. While they may be willing to pay more for a nationally advertised brand in some product categories, i.e. computers, cosmetics, clothing, other categories don’t seem to warant additional spending for a "name brand", i.e. breakfast cereal, ketchup, soft drinks.

* Thousands of new products are introduced every year, providing consumers more alternatives to currently purchased brands.

* Grocers and mass-merchandise retailers such as Wal-Mart, Target and K-Mart, are stocking more "store" brands to lure price-conscious consumers away from nationally advertised brands.

* Marketers have shifted above-the-line advertising dollars to below-the-line promotions. This focus on brand switching with price deals and incentives, does nothing for brand loyalty.

Nevertheless, brand loyalty is key to market leaders in mature categories, such as Coca-Cola. Consumers are purchasing the product and purchase frequency is maximized, i.e. the annual U.S. consumption of Coca-Cola is approximately 297 eight-ounce servings (Coca-Cola, 1993). The only means for Coca-Cola to grow the brand domestically is with a defensive strategy, which advocates the retention of existing users and maintaining purchase frequency (Jones, 1992). In order to accomplish this, the brand must continue to enhance the association between the brand and the consumer.

While Coca-Cola has developed and maintained this link with the consumer through decades of consistent brand strategies and well-financed advertising campaigns, Coca-Cola also enjoys a connection with a select segment of its consumer base that goes beyond brand loyalty. These consumers are also collectors of the brand. In fact, it seems these collectors are almost consumed by the brand, collecting various items, old and new, emblazoned with the infamous Coca-Cola logo. This intensely strong relationship is somewhat different than one in which the soft drink is simply consumed. It is this relationship that will be explored in this paper.

The paper is divided into three sections. The first discusses the collecting literature, providing a foundation of differentiation between collecting and consuming. The second section describes the method used for researching this area of collecting and the reasoning for using Coca-Cola for the case study. Emergent themes are discussed in the third section.

The Case for Collecting

Collecting is not only commonplace in today’s society, it is believed to be "an intensely involving form of consumption" (Belk, 1995, p. 67). Usually brands are thought of as consumable. In the context of consumer behaviorists, consumption is a means of acquiring, using and discarding product (Belk, Wallendorf, Sherry & Holbrook, 1991). Therefore, we buy a Coca-Cola to drink, we purchase a Lexus to drive, we buy a McDonald’s Happy Meal to feed the children. But recently, many brands such as Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, Campbell’s Soup, Plante’s Peanuts, and Harley Davidson have been acquired for collection rather than consumption. This is not how brands have traditionally been perceived by marketers or researchers. Therefore, brand collecting becomes a rather unique form of consumer behavior with the primary focus on the acquisition and possession of the brand and seldom, if ever involves discarding the brand.

In distinguishing collecting behavior from other consumption activities, Belk (1995, p. 67) defined the activity as "the process of actively, selectively, and passionately acquiring and possessing things removed from ordinary use and perceived as part of a set of non-identical objects." In collecting, acquisition is the key. To acquire something is to gain or take possession of it. To possess something is to have it under one’s control and to identify it as one’s ownBto save it and add the possession to what is seen to be a "set of things"Bthe collection (Belk et al, 1991). Collecting Coca-Cola is a highly involving form of consumption rather than an uninvolving form such as buying a soft drink. As a result, collectors tend to feel attached to their collections in ways that may seem irrational if viewed in terms of the normal functions of consumption (Belk, 1995).

Belk (List, 1991, p. 47) has called collecting "the distilled essence of consumption." Therefore, collecting is a different type of consumption and the collector is a different type of consumer. A brand collector may have a stronger relationship with the brand than simply a brand consumer. In addition, by building lines of collectible goods, brand manufacturers strengthen the association between the brand and the consumer/collector, which may enhance the collector’s brand loyalty. The loyal relationship between a collector and a brand is the focus of this exploratory research.


Design of the Study

The purpose of this study is to explore the relationship between a collector and the brand collected. As stated earlier, collectors are different than consumers, and brands are unique in that the purchase often has more emotional appeal than rational appeal. Therefore, it is important to study this relationship from the perspective of the brand and the consumer, or in this case the collector.

This research is designed as a case study of a collectible brand, Coca-Cola. The case study has been described as a means for exploring an entity or phenomenon ("the case") bounded by time and activity (a process or event), wherein the researcher collects detailed information by using a variety of data collection procedures during a sustained period of time (Creswell, 1994: Yin, 1994).

While many brands have entered the collectible marketplace, Coca-Cola was chosen for this study because it is considered the largest and oldest brand collectible in the world. Long before today’s mass media, The Coca-Cola Company used millions of promotional pieces to advertise and sell its product to the masses. These items range from utilitarian merchandising products such as bottles and coolers to traditional and familiar advertising items such as signs and print advertisements; from point-of-purchase items such as trays and calendars to complimentary novelties such as toys and bookmarks (Schaeffer & Bateman, 1994). Today, collectors worldwide have made these antique Coca-Cola pieces, and thousands more recently manufactured articles such as polar bears, dishes, beanie toys and Christmas ornaments, the American collectible (Pearce 1990). Currently, more than 150 companies worldwide hold licenses to manufacture items bearing the Coca-Cola trademark. More than 7500 collectors, in more than 23 countries, are members of The Coca-Cola Collectors Club. The club, chartered in 1975, is voluntarily governed by its members and is financially independent of TheCoca-Cola Company. All of the collectors interviewed for this study are members of The Coca-Cola Collectors Club.

Data Collection & Analysis

The two qualitative data collection techniques employed for this study are observation and in-depth semi-structured interviews.

Extensive fieldnotes were compiled and analyzed from the observations. The settings include the annual Coca-Cola Collectors Convention, three Coca-Cola collector-only events, and several brand specific retail outlets, including the World of Coca-Cola in Atlanta, Georgia and the Fifth Avenue Coca-Cola Store in New York City. Collecting data via observation was the first step in this study. This afforded a clearer understanding of the collecting environment as well as the collecting behavior. Furthermore, these observations provided the foundation for structuring the interviews and contributed to the screening and selection of collectors to be interviewed.

Twenty in-depth interviews were administered from September 1996BMay 1997. These semi-structured interviews were conducted in the homes of the collectors in order to view first-hand the collector with his/her collection. These interviews served a dual purpose: 1) The interviews provided a cross-check mechanism to support the interpretations gathered from the observations (Adler & Adler, 1994); and 2) The interviews gave the collector a voiceBa means of viewing the collecting behavior from the collector’s point of view. It was from the interviews that the collector’s relationship and perceptions of the brand were uncovered.

As with any qualitative data, the process of analysis is to bring order, structure and meaning to the data collected. The strategies employed here reflect that belief (Glaser & Strauss, 1967; Charmaz, 1988; Bogdan and Biklen, 1992). Coding was divided into the two-phase process described by Glaser & Strauss (1967), initial coding and focused coding. During the initial phase, the data were coded line by line with emerging ideas, topics, and themes coded as such during the process. The second phase of focused coding was more selective. Here the sets of codes were narrowed to build categories by continuously re-examining the data. Themes then became more defined and supportable via the data. As suggested by Strauss and Corbin (1990), this process of coding and recoding continued until it became apparent that all the incidents could be classified and the categories were saturated. The major themes that emerged will be discussed in the next section.


Work Ethic

Collecting is hard work. Just ask a Coca-Cola collector. It takes time to amass hundreds of objects for a collection. This is especially true for those who collect the older Coca-Cola pieces, and those that do are quick to explain the time and effort it takes to put a collection together. While every collector interviewed for this study collects the older pieces, only seven have made that the focus of the collection. These older collectibles are found predominantly at auctions, Coca-Cola conventions, swap meets, flea markets, etc. The newer merchandise can be purchased at many mass-merchandise outlets, as well as through the Coca-Cola catalog and retail stores. While each interviewee talked specifically about the amount of work involved in the job, only one discussed the money spent or the hardship of the financial aspect of collecting. This is interesting primarily because the old Coca-Cola memorabilia can be very expensive, i.e. a metal sign recently sold for $35,000, a metal serving tray can sell for $5,000, a paper calendar can cost $10,000 and an original piece of Coca-Cola art can garner $50,000. Allan, a collector turned dealer, buys and sells Coca-Cola collectibles as his full-tme job. He talked about his collection as an investment, because pieces of his collection are for sale at the right price.

No other collector spoke of selling his/her own collection pieces. The others talk about collecting Coca-Cola as an act of love. The collectors refer to the brand as family, as a friend. They welcome the brand into their homes, live with the brand daily as decor and as refreshment. It is not just their livelihood or their hobby to collect Coca-Cola, the collectors feel it is basically their job.

"This buying and selling stuff is hard work," claims Pete, a retiree who has been collecting for more than 25 years. In addition, he is buying and selling the new collectibles at flea markets each weekend. The fact that each collector spoke about the hard work involved in amassing and maintaining the collection indicates the view that this is laborious, yet enjoyable work.

There are three basic areas that constitute this work load. They are: the constant, persistent search for additions to the collection; the effort to become knowledgeable about the collectibles in order to authenticate each item to guard against being ripped off; and the fact that these collections are not purchased in bulk, they are accumulated one piece at a time. These areas will be discussed separately.

The Hunt

While many consumers often see shopping as a chore, collectors thrive on it. Belk (1995, p 72) contends that the shopping of a collector is a "treasure hunt, an adventure, a quest, and a delight." The searching is as important as the possessing. The joy of the chase is deep-seated in every collector and it is often compared to hunting. The following passage from Rigby & Rigby’s (1949, p. 388) work on collecting provides an excellent description of the collector’s hunting mentality.

The true collector is a transformed hunter. Although his hands are seldom bloodstained, his intense concentration, like the hunter’s is pointed toward the objective of getting a full bag. Like the hunter, the collector studies his prey and develops his own flair. And like the hunter, he sometimes relishes the sport leading up to the kill as much if not more than the kill itself.

In fact, the love of this chase makes owning the collectible secondary to locating and purchasing it. This is certainly the case for the Coca-Cola collectors in this study. Each purchase was enveloped in its own acquisition story, many of which were almost unimaginable. But the "hunt" for Coca-Cola collectibles takes a great deal of time. No one, not even The Coca-Cola Company, is certain what old collectibles exist in the marketplace. So the collectors are in a constant search and seizure mode, looking for Coca-Cola at every turn.

Randy and Bill, university math professors, have amassed the largest private collection of Coca-Cola collectibles in the U.S. They estimate to house more than 20,000 pieces in the Victorian mansion they call home. Not only do they hunt down the pieces, they hunt down the people who own the pieces. The two 3-foot leaded glass Coca-Cola bottles that adorn the first-floor landing were separate purchasesByears apart. In one instance they heard about a bottle through a collector in Ohio. They tracked down the bottler, who had relocated to Pennsylvania. He had the bottle and was willing to sell, but his sons were not. An offer of $2,500 could not make the sale.

Years later, while attending the convention, another collector requested that Bill and Randy appraise such an item, located in their region. Bells began to go off. Randy explains:

We knew right away it had to be this same leaded glass bottle. We had been trying to get it for twenty years. Every year, almost religiously, Bill would call up the old man and ask to buy the bottle. So, in our minds this was earmarked for us.

Bill called to learn that the father had passed away and the sons were selling the plant. The bottle was still available. When asked how much he was willing to pay Bill recalls, "I said $4,000. I had originally offered his dad $2,500 but that was years ago, so I had to up the ante and that sounded good to him." Four-thousand dollars cash. After twenty years, the bottle was finally theirs. The hunt to complete the pair took another five years.

Roger, a school teacher, is constantly in the hunt mode, searching flea markets that he regularly attends. He found a syruper (a large container that was used to store the Coca-Cola syrup at soda fountain locations), but needed to authenticate the piece. He tells the story:

I had seen the porcelain ones beforeBthey are really old. But this was like rubber. I’d never seen one like it. The guy wanted $40, and at the time that $40 was out of my range. I just kept thinking about it and figuring it was something new. I passed it up. I came home and looked through all my booksBnothing. So, I called up a couple of experts, and when I started describing it to them, they knew immediately what it was. It was from the late 1800s and was worth about $150 to $200. I thought damn, I could have had it for 40 bucks.

When Roger returned to the flea market the next weekend, he went directly to purchase the syruper, but it wasn’t in the same spot as expected. An all day search of the market finally turned up the syruper. "Just as I turned the corner, there it was. I asked the guy how much, he said $40. Boy, did I give him my 40 bucks quick."


The process of authenticating a piece is important to protect the collector from being misled or as the collectors term it "ripped off." There are many reproductions and fake collectibles available in the marketplace, and there are just as many dealers willing to sell them as originals to unsuspecting collectors. To the uninformed collector, this is a danger zone. Therefore, in order to protect themselves, the collectors learn the subtle differences between the reproductions and the originals, while depending on price guides and books for guidance. But it’s nearly impossible to know everything. While the archivist at Coca-Cola is usually willing to provide information, Bill and Randy have become known as the "experts" among collectors. They have spent years learning the history of how and where the originals were manufactured in order to provide authentication.

Most of the collectors admit that it is a long process to learn, but other collectors such as Bill and Randy, and price guides are helpful. The Coca-Cola trademark has changed over the years, so determining which trademark it is and where it’s located on the piece provides the production date. Carol, a 50-something emergency room nurse who only collects Coca-Cola glasses, explains the differences in the trademark.

Here it says Coca-Cola and there’s a tail with the C. On the old ones, that is acid etched. On the new ones, it’s white paint. And on the real old ones, inside the tail of the C is where it says trademarked C. In the new ones, it’s slightly under the tail of the C and then from 1941 on, it says R underneath, but it’s still acid etched.

Without the knowledge about the various dates and trademarks, it’s easy to be deceived into buying something that is not an original and paying more than it’s worth. It’s serious business according to the experts, because this also determines the value of the piece. The risk varies depending on what is being collected. For example, Carol’s risk is minimal. Most of the glasses cost under $10, so if she were deceived it wouldn’t be tragic, just disappointing. But as Bob, a 30-ish Pentagon employee and former president of thenational club points out, once collectors venture into the calendars, trays and similar old artifacts, it’s easy to be cheated out of hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars.

My rule of thumb is, if you’re not sure, if there’s any doubt, don’t buy it. I would rather be wrong and turn down an item that’s a great buy, than to spend a couple thousand dollars and be ripped off. I don’t think I’ve been ripped off, but somebody could come into my collection tomorrow and tell me I have been.

So, the work involved in this collecting process is extensive, whether it be finding the piece to buy or making certain the piece is worth buying. What is so unusual about this investment of time and energy is that it is constant. That investment is expended for every piece that is added to the collection. The work continues.

Piece by Piece

All of the collectors identified here have been collecting for many years, on average about 12 years. To look at their collections, whether it be six hundred glasses, or ten thousand advertisements, or seven thousand various Coca-Cola objects, it is almost unimaginable that these items could have been accumulated over that amount of time. Especially considering how difficult many of these items are to find. It is a life’s work. As Pete says, "It’s my job."

Each collector quickly points out that collecting is hard work because nothing is bought in bulk. It is done one piece at a time. The hunt continues as the collector searches to complete his or her collection. This is especially difficult in collecting the early Coca-Cola memorabilia. As Randy points out:

It’s a lot easier to do with the new stuff. It’s everywhere. It’s easy to get every Polar Bear ornament which shows up at K-Mart and Wal-Mart and Hills and Target and even Hallmark stores. We want every calendar and every tray, but this is a lot harder to do because we don’t know where they are. Most people don’t want to work that hard at their collecting. It is hard work for us and it’s expensive.

Furthermore, there is enormous pride in putting together a collection piece by piece. In a way, there is competition and status involved in working so hard at collecting. The three largest Coca-Cola collections are owned by Bill and Randy, The Coca-Cola Company, and a Coca-Cola bottler by the name of Jim Schmidt in Kentucky. Bill and Randy are well-known among collectors and at Coca-Cola. Although the Company is often a competitor in bidding on items, the relationship is strong and admiring on both sides. On the other hand, the experts are not as friendly or generous to Mr. Schmidt, whom they say has a "checkbook collection." This is according to Bill:

When we started, there were two really big collections. Those two competed against one another and built up quite good collections. Eventually one guy sold all of his stuffBmostly to Schmidt. After the competition was gone, the other guy lost interest and he sold all of his stuffBmostly to Schmidt. They did all the real leg work. They gathered all the early stuff. Schmidt bought a collection. He had all of this done for him, he got it all at one time. He didn’t have to go around and gather it like we did.

So because Bill and Randy worked harder and put their collection together one piece at a time, it’s more admired by the collectors. It’s an understanding and a sense of pride that this is how it should be done. Each collector believes that only another collector can understand that philosophy. Even Phil Mooney, archivist of The Coca-Cola Company, credits Bill and Randy with a more impressive collection than Schmidt. His reasoningBas a Coca-Cola bottler, Schmidt had access to items that Billand Randy had to locate on their own. Again, a sign of hard work.

Finally, there is work involved in maintaining the collection. Carol has pictures of all her 600 glasses in a notebook she takes when she is shopping for collectibles. Pete is working to organize his collection stored in three garages. He spends hours sorting through thousands of Coca-Cola branded items, carefully deciding how each one should be displayed. Randy and Bill have catalogued their collection, recording the dates and manufacturers of each piece. They used a computer program to layout the placement of the sixty trays that hang along the front landing and the hundreds of metal signs displayed in the back staircase. They have framed every calendar they ownBfrom 1897 on. They have commissioned, designed, and built special display cases that house the smaller pieces in the collection, such as jewelry, cards, knives, thimbles, bottle openers, etc. These people are not just collectors, they are stewards of Coca-Cola.


The Coca-Cola Collectors Club provides a safe haven for collectors to pursue and talk about their hobby. The club serves as a reference group allowing the collector to identify with and interact with other collectors without embarrassment or guilt. This is important as Belk (1995) submits that collecting is somewhat a solitary activity.

The Coca-Cola Collectors Club is a network that has created its own shopping environment, information sources, experts, competitors and socialization. Within this marketplace lies a phenomena of shopping and social functions. Coca-Cola club members know each other, compete against each other, buy and sell from each other, shop together and socialize together. The Coca-Cola network is similar to what Christ (1965) describes among stamp collectors: the activity of buying from and socializing with other collectors is key. This pleasant, civil, entertaining attitude is especially obvious when discussing the phenomena of room-hopping.

Room-hopping is not only a shopping experience, it is a social function as well. It is the primary activity at the national convention, as well as local chapter events throughout the year. Events are held in large hotels and throughout the day and night, collectors open their hotel rooms to sell merchandise to other collectors. Each collector spoke enthusiastically about room-hopping and claimed this was the main reason for attending convention. Doug, a collector who has attended every convention explains:

I walk it. I’m out. I am out until nobody else is open that I can go to. I keep walking until I’m either dead tired or everybody is closed up. I love seeing these people.

No doubt room-hopping is part of the thrill of the chaseBnot knowing what’s around the corner or behind the bed for that matter. Furthermore, according to the collectors, the shopping can often turn into a buying frenzy if several sellers have lots of quality merchandise. And then there is the competitive nature of it. Getting to the room with the "good stuff" before someone else buys it all. But when reminded about these elements of room-hopping, overwhelmingly the collectors discount the frenzy and competitive nature and tout the benefits of the socializing.

The same people return to convention year after year along with some new faces. It’s almost a reunion atmosphere, the anticipation of certain activities that bring the collectors together. It’s a chance to meet old friends and make new ones, all with the same focusBCoca-Cola. Barbara, a collector for only five years, enjoys the convention atmosphere and her voice lilts with excitement just talking about it. Although she goes to the convention alone, she is seldom alone for long.

I know a lot of the collectors, although I might not know them all by name. But I know them by sight and they know I collect trays. We’ll jst sit and chat and say did you see thisBI found thatBI saw thatBI was in that roomBI didn’t see that. It’s just a really nice friendly atmosphere. The room hopping itself is an excellent way to meet people. It’s like you’re walking into somebody’s house or their shop. I can go by myself and not feel left out.

Collecting clubs

Collector’s club are networks that reinforce the social and psychological significance of the activity (Belk et al., 1991). Among members, collecting is valued and important, as are fellow collectors. Collector-only events and correspondence offer members the opportunity to identify, interact, empathize, support, show-off and even envy other collectors. Members do not see themselves as abnormal. Within the group they are normal, accepted, esteemed individuals. There are not judged or ridiculed or outcast. They are part of a tight-knit community, where collecting behavior is not only condoned, it is encouraged and rewarded. Bob’s description of the convention crystalizes the point:

We’re like one, big, happy family. These conventions give us a chance to live, talk and drink Coke, 24-hours-a-day for almost a week. Whether you’re a garbage collector or a corporate CEO, you don’t have to hide your love for the objects of your desire.

Joining a collector’s club is better than therapy. The clubs offer a safe social environment that rids the collector of guilt, while sanctioning collecting as a noble pursuit.


The social aspects of the collector’s club is only part of the reason collectors gather several times throughout the year to talk about Coca-Cola. The other element is that by talking about and showing off the collection to other collectors provides validation that the collection is good, admired, and worthwhile. Listen to Marjorie, a school teacher who brings her family to convention:

Having people such as Bill and Randy look at your pieces or at your collection, in some way validates the collection. It is the greatest joy for another collector to view your collection. It’s an opportunity to brag about what you do to other people who collect. Lots of times you collect something and the people you work with have no idea what it is and don’t care. But with the local chapters and the conventions, you can talk to people who have the same disease as you do. And they can say "WOW that’s neat" and you feel great.

All the collectors in this study were most generous in allowing this researcher to view their collections. But Bob was the first to discuss the importance of sharing his collection with others, and point up his preference to share it with other Coca-Cola collectors.

Oh, if you don’t share it, it’s not worth it. It becomes hoarding, not collecting. And having other collectors see your collection kind of validates it a little more. If someone comes to look at your collection who isn’t a collector and says it’s a really nice collection, I’m glad they like it. But if somebody’s been collecting for twenty years comes in and says I have a great collection, that sure means more to me, because they know what they’re looking at.

Ralph, a Coca-Cola sign collector expressed similar feelings:

Not only is convention a place to go where nobody thinks you’re crazy, it’s the opportunity to share the excitement. It’s the fact that I can tell somebody about something that excited me and they will share the excitement. I mean, that’s the big thing. I can come home and tell my mom I got this wood sign and she’ll say, "oh that’s nice, it goes with the other one". But I can go to somebody at convention and say I found this sign, and they’ll say "Oh my God! I’ve never seen that one before." That’s really neat.

According to Muensterberger (1994) collectors seek approval. Collectors see themselves as hard-working, knowledgeable and discriminating people. They want to be seen that way, by collectors and non-collectors as well. Even those who do not share the passion or the understanding of collecting, might admire the dedication, or meticulous care and determination the collection requires. But the real understanding and approval is derived from fellow collectors.

Pete wants to organize his collection into a museum so others could gaze at the treasures he has worked diligently to acquire and display. Bill and Randy already have a museum, it just happens to also be their home. They ask people to sign a guest book, wherein they can keep track of those who come to view and admire the massive collection. Craig, a collector of wooden signs, explains his feelings:

A guy from Pennsylvania came to look at my stuff and said he’d never seen so many wooden signs in one place. He never knew most of them even existed. He’s been collecting more than twenty years, so it’s like WOWBthis guy would know. That makes me feel great.

This type of approval is what Belk (1988) identifies as the extension of self. The approval that is sought speaks more about the collector than the collection. It confirms that the collector is good at what he/she does and that others approve and respect that. Furthermore, if we are what we have as Belk (1995, p. 88) suggests, then the collector "stands out as being unique by possessing rare, valued, and unique possessions." Because collections are such personal representations of the collector’s judgement and desires, and are often quite visibly displayed, it is not surprising that the collection and the collector are viewed similarly.


There’s no doubt about itBCoca-Cola collectors love Coca-Cola and drink only Coca-Cola or Diet Coke. They claim there is a clear distinction between Coke and Pepsi. Pete has been known to walk out of a restaurant that offers Pepsi instead of Coca-Cola. He knows there is a difference and does not take lightly to substitution. Furthermore, he jokingly contends that his 1993 multiple by-pass heart surgery was caused by "someone slipping me a PepsiBthat would do it."

All of those interviewed suggested it isn’t just the product they like, they like what the company stands forB@the Coca Cola mystique" as more than one collector deemed it. To translateBCoca-Cola is "tied to the American way of life." "You just can’t enjoy the American way if you don’t have a Coca-Cola in it." "You put it together with Mom, apple pie, the American flag and Coca-Cola." "This is the symbol of America." The company is strong, American, a good place to work, a good corporate citizen, sells a good product at a reasonable price, and is a good investment. In addition to drinking Coca-Cola, all the collectors interviewed own stock in The Coca-Cola Company. Phil Mooney of Coca-Cola testifies to the loyalty of the collectors:

They are very, very brand loyal. That’s what makes this so intersting. No other brand has this type of loyalty. These people not only consume the product, they acquire it, save it and totally immerse themselves in the brand.

According to Mooney, nothing tested these loyalists more than the introduction of New Coke in 1985. "It was the ultimate testimony to the power of this brand," said Mooney. The collectors hated New Coke. They felt betrayed and confused. Should they drink the stash of Coca-Cola kept on hand or was it now going to become collectible. Each collector has a story and an opinion. In each instance, the element of brand loyalty emerges as the collectors describe the feelings that accompanied the change of their "friend."

When new Coke was introduced, Pete couldn’t, or wouldn’t, believe the news that Coke was changing the taste of his favorite soft drink. He protested to the company by writing letters and articles in the collector’s club newsletter. He never did drink New Coke. "I just thought this can’t happen. It was almost like a death in the family," he said.

When New Coke arrived, Ross, an avid Coca-Cola drinker, switched to Cherry Coke, which he contends was the closest thing to the original. The reason the collectors were so upset, he believes, was that Coke didn’t give collectors any warning of what was about to happen. He tries to explain the reaction from club members:

The Coke Collectors Club is a very, very strong club. They have a very strong loyalty to the product. There are Coca-Cola employees that come to our meetings and conventions. And we felt we had a strong relationship with the company. A lot of people felt betrayed. So, in addition to just not liking the flavor, we didn’t like the way it was done.

Bob had just started collecting at the time of New Coke. But he was a loyal Coca-Cola drinker. Surprisingly, that didn’t stop him from trying New Coke. His reaction:

It tasted like Pepsi and if I wanted the taste of Pepsi, I would have been buying Pepsi. I wasn’t one of those people you saw on TV protesting in front of company headquarters, but I was thinking to myselfBI don’t think I’m gonna drink Coke any more. It was like losing an old friend.

The dissent grew among collectors. They were the most vocal of critics, writing letters to newspapers, talking to reporters and protesting to the company. As the 1985 Coca-Cola National Collectors Convention date grew closer, company officials panicked that coverage would only increase as several hundred collectors gathered in Dallas. It was only a few weeks later that the Coca-Cola company announced the introduction of Classic Coke. A special effort was made to have the first shipment arrive in Dallas for the Coca-Cola Collectors Club convention.

According to Aaker’s (1991) writing on brands, brand loyalty can be measured in several ways: 1) consumer satisfaction with the brand; 2) consumer liking the brand; and 3) consumer commitment to the brand. All three of these measurements played a role in the Coca-Cola collector’s response to New Coke.

First, the collectors were satisfied with Coca-ColaBthe product as well as the company. Their satisfaction was evident by their consistent purchase of the product, company stock and Coca-Cola collectibles. What seems to have caused the dissatisfaction among the collectors was not so much that the product was being changed, but they were not asked about it, or even told. They wanted to be asked, they wanted to know. Because these collectors are so strongly vested in Coca-Cola, it is not surprising that they felt "betrayed" by the introduction of New Coke. More importantly, they felt unimportant. By not being informed in advance, their position with the company was not as they had assumed.

Secondly, brand loyalty is manifested in the consumer liking the brand. These collectors like Coca-Cola; hey like the product and the company. Aaker (1991) explains that the "liking level" is measured in a variety of ways, such as respect, friendship and trust. Not only were the collectors dissatisfied with product of New Coke, its introduction violated the level of trust placed with the company. This violation is apparent in the collector’s discussions as they spoke about "losing a friend" or a family member. They rebelled by not buying New Coke.

Finally, Aaker (1991) posits that the commitment to the brand is visible through the amount of interaction and communication that is involved with the brand. No doubt, Coca-Cola collectors are very committed. Their interaction with the brand is part of everyday life, whether it is drinking Coca-Cola or living with their collections. In addition, there is tremendous communication about the brand, whether it was discussing collectibles, or reading the club newsletter, or letting the company know that New Coke was not acceptable. The company did get the message. Coca-Cola quickly realized the value of the collectors as consumers and worked to repair the damage New Coke caused. As former Coca-Cola CEO Roberto Goizueta said at the time, "The brand does not belong to us. We’re just the custodians" (personal conversation, Phil Mooney, April 3, 1997).

Indeed, this is beyond loyalty, this is about brand ownership. Coca-Cola collectors feel they own the brand. They not only use the brand, they live with it everyday. The brand belongs to them. They work tirelessly to protect the brand, market the brand, advertise the brand. They invest in the brand by buying stock. They are the voice of the brand. They are part of the brand’s history. Because they collect historical pieces, their knowledge about the brand is unparalleled. In fact, it is a common belief among collectors that they know more about the brand than the people working at Coca-Cola. Bill and Randy’s collection is often acknowledged to be more extensive and complete than the company’s archives.

Collecting celebrates ownership (Belk et al., 1991). The acquisition and possessive nature of the collector makes brand ownership possible. The collection is mine, the brand is mine. The collectors invest enormous amounts of time and resources in the collecting activity and maintenance of the collection, just like the owner of a business. According to Coca-Cola archivist Phil Mooney, "No other brand has this kind of following. These collectors are Coca-Cola."


These collectors are not only masters of the brand, they are highly visible in the marketplace, making the brand more visible as well. Coca-Cola collectors are written about in antique and travel magazines, newspaper articles, collecting magazines and newsletters. They often appear on television programs that spotlight collectors and collections, including QVC and the Home Shopping Network. Collector conventions and local club activities are covered by the local media, while collectors are often invited to special events sponsored by The Coca-Cola Company, such as anniversary parties and retail store openings. Each collector is considered a specialist of his/her own collection, affording each one the opportunity of being an authority on Coca-Cola. Many collectors, such as Bill, Randy, and Bob are considered experts in Coca-Cola collectibles. Their advice and insights are sought after by other Coca-Cola collectors, the collecting industry, the media and even The Coca-Cola Company. They write articles and books, conduct lectures and workshops, lending much visibility to the brand and establishing enormous credibility as a spokesperson for the brand. Much like an owner. The Coca-Cola Company’s greatest fear regarding the introduction of New Coke was that the media would focus on the collectors, who would be the most vocal and could do the the most damage to the brand. This is a most powerful group of consumers.

These ar brand owners. Coca-Cola is theirs. They possess it. They possess the collectible, they possess the brand. This is a passion that surpasses brand loyalty as marketers know it. A passion that drives consumption of Coca-Cola and the acquisition of Coca-Cola collectibles.

While Coca-Cola has remained virtually unchanged for more than 100 years, it still evokes a full gamut of individual emotionBnostalgia, patriotism, romance, love, prideBamong collectors. The impassioned intensity of the association the collectors have with the brand heightens the bond between the collectors and Coca-Cola. There is little doubt it is the Real Thing.


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Jan S. Slater, Ohio University


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 27 | 2000

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