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In Coke’s Hometown, Pepsi Relishes Underdog Role

April 7, 1992

ATLANTA (AP) _ In the cola war, A.J. McDonald is a soldier stuck behind enemy lines.

McDonald runs the Pepsi-Cola plant in Atlanta, where he competes against the city’s most famous corporate resident, The Coca-Cola Co.

He requested a transfer to Atlanta two years ago from the Pepsi stronghold of Minneapolis, and he relishes the role of the underdog.

″There’s a special place in heaven for people who sell Pepsi in Atlanta,″ McDonald said.

Few cities are associated with a product the way Atlanta is with Coke. So McDonald could be forgiven for feeling like an outcast as he drives along Coca-Cola Plaza, watches thousands of visitors flocking to the World of Coca- Cola center or looks up at the giant Coca-Cola logo atop the headquarters of his competition.

″Atlanta is, for the most part, synonymous with Coca-Cola,″ McDonald said. ″It’s almost a way of life in Atlanta. It’s a challenge.″

While Coca-Cola’s product line has a 41 percent share of the $47 billion soft drink market to Pepsi-Cola’s 32.8 percent, Coke’s advantage in Atlanta is much greater.

Coca-Cola estimates its local market share as more than 60 percent and said Pepsi has less than 20 percent of the city’s market. Pepsi would not release its local market share estimates.

Pepsi, based in Somers, N.Y., entered the Atlanta market in 1926, 40 years after Coke was invented here.

Pepsi-Cola employees say they’re constantly reminded that this is Coke country. It takes a great amount of dedication, they say, to work for Pepsi in Atlanta.

Chuck Nealey, a district manager in Atlanta, makes it a point to keep a few cans of Pepsi on hand, whether he’s working or not.

″Even in our families, our everyday life, it’s just natural,″ Nealey said. ″You get in situations where you almost feel like it’s more socially acceptable if you drink Coca-Cola.

″We try to make sure people know they have a choice. If someone’s drinking Coca-Cola, I’ll drink Pepsi right next to him. I’d say 80 percent of the time you’re going to strike up a conversation.″

While McDonald works for Pepsi in Coke’s town, his wife works for Minnesota-based Northwest Airlines in the hometown of Delta Air Lines.

″We thrive on adversity,″ he said with a laugh.

Even the most fervent Pepsi enthusiast doesn’t expect to overtake Coke in its hometown, but the Atlanta market is worth fighting for, said soft drink analyst Jesse Meyers.

″There is no more loyalty by birthright. Each customer for Coca-Cola and Pepsi-Cola must be earned,″ said Meyers, who publishes the industry newsletter Beverage Digest in Greenwich, Conn.

″Coca-Cola has been part of Atlanta for 106 years, and Atlanta is undoubtedly a Coca-Cola town,″ said Coke spokesman Randy Donaldson. ″But that doesn’t mean we take it for granted.″

Pepsi’s local marketing steers clear of directly confronting Coke, though store displays declare: ″Atlanta, You’ve Got a Choice.″ Pepsi also tries to ingratiate itself among Atlantans by tying local promotions to such things as Atlantic Coast Conference basketball.

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