Cheerwine hopes to be nationwide in six years

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, April 6, 2011

By Mark Wineka
SALISBURY — Cheerwine officials said Tuesday they hope the soft drink can be readily available in all 50 states by the company’s 100th anniversary.
That would be six years from now.
Cheerwine calls it the “Vision 50 X 100.”
For the Salisbury company, it’s not unlike the early 1960s when President Kennedy promised that the United States would land a man on the moon by the end of the decade.
Cheerwine wants to be a national brand by 2017, a century after L.D. Peeler started with the cherry-flavored soft drink.
“It’s a goal we think we can achieve, but it won’t be easy,” said Cliff Ritchie, president and chief executive officer of Cheerwine Bottling and Carolina Beverage Corp.
Cheerwine, whose predominant market is in the Southeast, is now in 12 states.
Tom Barbitta, vice president of marketing for Cheerwine, also unveiled Tuesday the company’s new “Legend” advertising push, which uses the tagline, “Born in the South. Raised in a glass.”
Barbitta said Tennessee will be “a big proving ground” for the brand because of its partnership there with Pepsi Bottling Co. Cheerwine is part of the “Pepsi set” on grocery store shelves in Tennessee, in Pepsi vending machines and, Barbitta hopes, available soon in the Pepsi line of fountain drinks.
If Cheerwine does well in Tennessee, Pepsi “might be interested in going other places with us,” Barbitta said. But he and Ritchie stressed that Cheerwine will partner with the best distribution opportunities available as it expands market by market.
Cheerwine started shipping finished product to Tennessee in January. The company hopes it soon can be produced there, too.
Pepsi Bottling Ventures in Raleigh also is a partner with Cheerwine in several states.
Cheerwine has reasons to believe it can grow. While cola sales have been declining, the growth in soft drinks has been in flavors. “That’s a wonderful story for us,” Barbitta said.
The company’s market research shows that fountain drink sales are 5.5 percent higher when Cheerwine is in the line of drinks offered. Sales are 1.5 percent less when Cheerwine is not included.
In vending machines, Cheerwine represents a $133 “margin of contribution” per machine when it is among the drinks offered, Barbitta said.
The “Legend” marketing campaign, fashioned by a Manhattan agency, targets “the 18-year-old in all of us,” not necessarily just 18-year-olds, Barbitta said.
The strategy includes new billboards, truck displays, radio spots, website development, social networks and packaging. It plays on the notion that Cheerwine, over its 94 years, has earned credence as a legendary brand — a “true passion brand,” whose consumers show a “loyalty beyond reason,” Barbitta said.
People drive out of their way for Cheerwine and Cheerwine lovers have had it shipped over the world, Ritchie noted. Also part of the “legend” and backstory is that independent, privately held Cheerwine is the oldest continuing soft drink company still run by the same family — five generations.
The company’s research and consumer surveys revealed people associate Cheerwine with being young, bubbles, flavor, fun and even “forbidden fruit,” Barbitta said, and that will translate well to propelling the brand forward.
He called it a “Trickster archetype” and promised Cheerwine ads will be “a little bit brazen” and “a little bit up in your ice chest.”
Cheerwine gave a preview Tuesday of some of its new radio ads, two of which have a direct connection to Salisbury.
The “Caper” spot tells the story of criminals who broke into a Salisbury convenience store and left everything but the Cheerwine.
The “Battle of the Bulge” tells how a 19-year-old Bob Morgan of Rowan County had two bottles of Cheerwine delivered to him at his machine gun position, his handing of the second bottle to his friend, Doc, and how they then gave the Nazis hell the rest of the day during some fierce fighting in Europe during World War II.
Morgan was on hand Tuesday as Cheerwine unveiled its expansion plans at the Country Club of Salisbury.
Ritchie said Cheerwine has been keeping its national goal “all under wraps” and it was great Tuesday to be able to share it with partner bottlers from the Carolinas and Virginia.
Winston-Salem’s Krispy Kreme also went national — with mixed results. Cheerwine’s strategy will be to develop contiguous markets, such as Tennessee, and grow from there, using the best distributors available.
“You can overreach yourself, so you have to be careful,” Ritchie said.

‘Legendary among us’
While unveiling Cheerwine’s new “Legend” marketing campaign Tuesday, President and Chief Executive Officer Cliff Ritchie introduced some employees, friends and partners who “are legendary among us.”
They included:
• Ray Kepley, who has worked with Cheerwine since 1968, from the days when most of the bottles were returnable.
• Brenda Gardner and Barbara Kilby, sisters who combined have worked in the Cheerwine office in Salisbury for 73 years, since the days of rotary telephones and typewriters.
• Raymond Ritchie, the father of Cliff, who started work at Cheerwine in 1951, when 6-ounce bottles were all the company sold. “Cheerwine has been mighty good to me and good to our family,” Ritchie said. “I thank the Lord for it.”
• Innes Street Drug Co., a Salisbury business that has been selling Cheerwine at its drugstore fountain since 1926. Today, it also is headquarters for the sale of Cheerwine clothing and memorabilia.
• Fred Camp, a representative of Choice Beverage, which has been a partner with Cheerwine since the 1920s and is an original Cheerwine franchisee.
• Bob Morgan, longtime Salisbury resident and former car dealer whose story about receiving two bottles of Cheerwine prior to a day of fierce fighting against the Germans in World War II will be featured in an upcoming radio ad.
Morgan said he first started drinking Cheerwine as a youngster in the Liberty community, where store owner Jack Earnhardt would sell a slice of cheese, a bologna sandwich and a Cheerwine for 15 cents. “You had a pretty good deal,” he said.
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or mwineka@