LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
This week, Coca-Cola opened its newest bottling plant in one of the few countries on Earth that did not already have one - Myanmar, in Southeast Asia - also known as Burma.
It's been 60 years since Coke has been made there, and luring customers back is not easy. Robert Smith, with our Planet Money Team, has the story.
ROBERT SMITH, BYLINE: For years, the only countries left on Earth without Coke were Cuba, North Korea and Myanmar. The U.S. had slapped sanctions on them all. But last summer, the restrictions started to be lifted from Myanmar; and Coca-Cola executives hopped the first plane to Yangon.
SHAKIR MOIN: It was literally, a trip back in time. You know, it was like you have taken a time warp but backwards.
SMITH: Shakir Moin is in charge of marketing Coca-Cola in the region. He grew up in Pakistan. He knows how hard it is to do business in a developing country, but Myanmar was so far behind.
MOIN: Very few cars, no cellphone connection. Internet connection was only available at the hotel.
SMITH: Still, as he looked around, he saw an amazing opportunity for Coke. Here was an untapped market of nearly 60 million people. And everyone in the country seems to have a sweet tooth. On street corners, you can see these vendors.
(SOUNDBITE OF BELLS)
SMITH: Guys with giant stalks of sugarcane. They squeeze it through a press, sell you the juice.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)
SMITH: And that just means sugar water, right?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Yes, sir.
SMITH: They love their sugar water here. And Coke could have been huge in Myanmar, if not for the sanctions. Instead, during the years of government repression, people drank counterfeit Coke. A young man I met, So Htaik, says he made do with local brands like Max Cola and Star Cola.
SO HTAIK: Star Cola is a slight imitation of Coca-Cola. So we really want to try the real things here.
SMITH: After his first visit, Shakir knew that Myanmar was ready. Some people had even been secretly smuggling Coke across the border.
MOIN: There was cans from Thailand, cans from Vietnam, and cans from Singapore.
SMITH: But this turned out to be the first big problem for the comeback of Coca-Cola. The bootleg Coke was expensive. Not many people drank it. And when Shakir started to talk to people, he realized that Coke had gotten this elite reputation.
MOIN: The imagery that they had of Coke was for the extremely rich and well-to-do people.
SMITH: You can't sell millions of bottles of your product if it is considered the Dom Perignon of sugar water. So Shakir hatched a plan, a plan to change the way an entire country thought of Coke. First, he had to tackle that price problem. And when Coke started to bottle their product inside Myanmar, Shakir did something they almost never do - printed the price right on the label. Three hundred kyat, it says, the local currency; about 33 cents. That way, stores could not get away with charging high prices for Coke.
MOIN: And we want to make sure that Coca-Cola is affordable for everyone who wants to buy it.
SMITH: It worked, even though when I bought my first Coke in Myanmar, the woman tried to charge me more than the official price.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken)
SMITH: What did she say? She wants to charge me 350?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Yes.
SMITH: Even though it says 300.
SMITH: She eventually gave up. So now that Coke was cheap, Shakir had to tackle his second big problem. Most of the country had never actually tasted Coca-Cola. They knew the idea of Coke, but not the flavor. And this is a marketing challenge the company hasn't had to face in decades. Normally, no one has to explain Coke.
Shakir went to the company archives, and he looked back through all the advertising. And he finally found the perfect model. There was another time when Coke had to introduce itself to a country that didn't know a thing about it. It was more than a hundred years ago, when Coke was first invented.
MOIN: So literally, the first stop was 1886 Atlanta.
SMITH: Atlanta, birthplace of Coke. No one had tasted it back then, and soda fountains there used free samples to spread the word. They're doing the same thing now, in Myanmar; going into neighborhoods and giving out ice-cold bottles, along with an instruction sheet on how to properly drink Coke - three ice cubes, pour at a 45-degree angle, squeeze of lime.
Shakir says he also found his new slogan for his bottle back on posters from the 1800s.
MOIN: The messaging, in the early days, was that it's a delicious product and it refreshes you. So if you are to walk down the streets of Myanmar, that's the singularly - the only messaging that you would find on Coca-Cola; it's delicious and refreshing.
SMITH: It sounds a little more profound in the local language. I asked a guide at one of the Buddhist temples to read the new Coke label out loud.
KHIN WIN: It's Myanmar language (foreign language spoken) - good, delicious and fresh mind.
SMITH: Fresh mind?
WIN: Fresh mind. If you drink, you can get a clearer mind.
SMITH: My guide, Khin Win, says normally, he drinks tea. But he'd give this bottle a try.
Robert Smith, NPR News.
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