Coffee-Mate and the Meaning of Life

2001 – Before the end of “irrational exuberance.”  I was making an obscene amount of money as interim director of marketing on Coffee-Mate managing projects like making sure that Coffee-Mate floor decals were produced.

One day, while hiking my favorite trail in the Santa Monica Mountains my identity crisis started taking shape: I cannot spend my career trying to get people to buy more artificial, processed non-dairy creamer. If, at the end of my life, I looked back and asked “how did I use my talents at work?” and the answer was “they bought more Coffee-Mate,” I knew I would be devastated. I would have squandered my potential. I have more to offer the world.

I questioned, “Did I need to do something else entirely?” Psychology? Become an academic? A race car driver?

Then I asked another question: Are any brands doing something worthwhile?

That’s when I realized, I was working on Coffee-Mate, but someone else was working on Nike. Down the hall sat the Carnation Instant Breakfast team but another team was working on Apple.

What was the difference? Was it simply sneakers and computers versus coffee creamer and breakfast bars? No, I didn’t feel that one product category was “better” than another.

The difference was the underlying intention of the brand. I felt that the real difference between Nike and Apple and the Nestle brands was the impact that they would have on the lives of their customers.

Was Nike just trying to sell me a pair of sneakers? I didn’t see it that way. I saw Nike — with the message, “Just Do It” — not so much as a product but a force that was propelling me to be a hero in my own life. Yes, maybe to work out, but also to start a business. Nike’s primary purpose was to provide a meaningful experience, not just to sell me more stuff.

Coffee-Mate? Stuff. And not very good stuff at that.

I realized that there were some brands— great brands – that were doing something right. I needed to figure out what they were doing so that I could do it too.

Next installment: How I figured it out.

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3 Responses to Coffee-Mate and the Meaning of Life

  1. Are any brands doing something worthwhile?
    Yep. Mine. – thanks to you.
    lg

  2. Leon says:

    Well, call me a cynic (I’m not really), but I don’t believe for a minute that Nike is selling anything more than ‘stuff’ like anyone else. They may want to appear otherwise, or want other people to think otherwise, and some inside Nike (or whomever) may even believe that… but I don’t. If you take away ALL the “features” or benefits of the products as promoted, you still have a products company. But take away the products and you have zip. They sell products… and the sizzle is just an avenue of promotion.

    I do get your point though, Robert, and I’m with you. Some companies, like Nike, are probably doing more for the world than certain others. I just don’t drink the coolaid as readily. 🙂

  3. I love Coffee Mate! But I don’t use it anymore, unless there is absolutely no real half-and-half or even plain old milk available. I’m glad to know you had that epiphany and no longer promote a cancer-causing product. (Although now they say the brewing of coffee and baking of muffins causes cancer.) May you be remembered, Robert, for doing even the tiniest thing that has improved this world. Such as writing your blog.

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