March 14, 2024

7UP: The Story of a Cultural Cowboy Product

7Up, the soft drink known as “The Un-cola” recognized as the world’s top mixer, defied conventional wisdom from its inception through to market leadership.

While we usually think of Cultural Cowboys™ as people, I believe that a product or company can also be deemed a Cultural Cowboy™, too. Perhaps this occurs if the product or company, and its journey to market, embody the spirit of its founder.

Embodying Cultural Cowboy™ Values:

In an earlier post, I introduced the concept of a Cultural Cowboy™ as someone who lives and works outside the norm, while appreciating assets found within their environments. Not satisfied with the status quo, they take an open, optimistic approach for capitalizing on opportunities and solving complex problems. The solutions to these complex situations are creative and multi-use. Cultural Cowboys love complex challenges that most people see as too risky, impossible, or just not worth the effort. Why? Because they are creative and tenacious. 

Cultural Cowboys™ take on the tasks of co-creating and shepherding value to the market with care, creativity, savvy, and grit. And they pass along codes of behavior by the way they conduct their business and tell their stories.  

The Visionary Behind 7UP:

Charles Leiper Grigg, the inventor and founder of 7UP, was a Cultural Cowboy. Running a general store in Prices Branch, Missouri, around 1900, C.L. was frequently struck with insights about how the big-city companies that sent him catalogs and products could do things better.  He wrote letters to his suppliers, filled with suggestions. Eventually, he was invited to St. Louis to see if he truly could do better and reform a dry goods firm. He not only succeeded, but was invited to apply the same innovative, continuous improvement approach to advertising agencies, and finally to a soda bottling company. At the same time, he was also busy networking outside of his industry, and became friends with a coal merchant and a lawyer, who eventually joined forces with Grigg to shepherd his invention to the market.

In the late 1920s, Grigg was dismissed from the soda bottling company for offering too many suggestions and seeking some recognition or reward after contributing to the development of a new orange soda that found market success. Despite his departure, Grigg remained brimming with ideas for innovative products and unmet market needs. Motivated by this, he resolved to establish his own soda venture. Following a brief endeavor with an orange soda named Howdy, Griggs pivoted towards creating a lemon-lime soda. The market was already saturated with numerous lemon-lime sodas, yet C.L. Grigg was confident that his product would distinguish itself. He operated under the philosophy, “Sell an Idea, and the thing itself stays sold.” 

The concept was to create a multi-use product of superior quality and taste, beneficial for health and suitable for mixing with other products. After Prohibition, Griggs saw an opportunity to broaden the customer base to include individuals eager to resume drinking spirits, albeit mixed with a gentler substance. The health benefits were touted based on the beverage's ability to soothe the stomach in cases of nausea. From a proactive health perspective, the new drink was refreshing and contributed to a sense of well-being. Indeed, there was a scientific basis for the early version of 7Up's soothing effect—it contained lithium citrate, a compound used in treating depression and enhancing mood. Even after lithium was removed in 1948, the drink's taste and versatility were so appreciated that consumers did not lament the absence of the mood-boosting ingredient.

Legacy of Innovation

But why do I assert that 7Up was and is a Cultural Cowboy? Because it began with three strikes against it, that got turned into positive capital for the product, coupled with a tenacious spirit and deep belief in what made 7Up so special.

Strike 1:  The name.

Grigg and his team originally named their drink “Bib-Label Lithiated Lemon-Lime Soda.” Apparently, they believed in being literal. A latter day 7Up CEO reflects back, laughing at the thought of attempting to get that name on billboards, let alone having it pronounced correctly over the radio. Eventually, C.L. decided to change the name to 7Up.

The rationale behind selecting the number "7" and the term "Up" for the brand name continues to be an enigma to this day, making this 1st strike a true Cultural Cowboy angle.

Some say it is because the original product had 7 ingredients. Others say it is because the atomic mass of Lithium is 7 and “Up” is how it made you feel. Still others say it was a subtle slam to Coca-Cola and other colas that originally bottled their products in 6 ounce bottles, whereas 7Up was bottled in 7 ounce bottles. One more notion is that it was named after popular card or dice game at the time.

C.L. Grigg never even told his son the true meaning behind the revised name. All that he revealed, with a twinkle in his eye, was: “7Up meant what the new drink tasted like and did for people.” Perhaps the name, like the product, had multiple uses. The evolution of the name turned the product into one of the most easy-to-remember brands in the world.

Strike 2: Timing.

The product was launched just before the stock market crash of 1929 that triggered the Great Depression. Unlike most commodoties whose prices plummeted, 7Up was priced higher per case than other soft drinks. This strategic pricing was designed to guarantee that dealers could remain profitable during difficult economic conditions. Dealers valued this approach and ensured that 7Up received widespread distribution.

Strike 3: Strict Quality Standards Throughout the Supply Chain.

To retain 7Up's high quality and consistent taste wherever it was sold, bottlers were required to treat local water, which costed extra and required a fair amount of work. Despite the additional effort required, this step established a point of differentiation and became a source of pride and a marketing asset for both the bottlers and the product. It contributed significantly to the brand's image of refreshing purity and health.

I realize that the product was not making these Cultural Cowboy™ decisions.  People were. But the effects on the product, and its ability to thrive, makes it a Cultural Cowboy™. It is not an outcome of going along with the norms and pressures of the day. 7Up capitalized on some market trends (e.g., the desire for mixers) while bucking others (e.g., bottle size, cheaper cost of production). It was even on the receiving end of some less-than-perfect decisions (e.g. the original name). But that change gave way to a very clever, simple, mysterious brand name that people recognize and admire across the globe.

The Slow Start, Steady Growth:

There is one final aspect about 7Up's story that makes it a Cultural Cowboy™- defying conventional wisdom and certainly worth considering. The fact that the entire production got off to a slow start.

H.C. Grigg, the founder’s son, is quoted as saying, “It took a long time, from 1929 to 1936, to get the company going. In these days of quick promotion, the usual thing is to give a new product two years to go or flop, and usually it flops. We used the reverse system, all the way. We started in the back streets at the mom-and-pop stores, and went last to the country clubs and the hotels. That was the result of my father’s principle, ‘Sell the idea and the thing itself stays sold.’”

What they did was ensure the idea was robust and applicable across markets, learning what needed adaptation (like the name) and identifying the core principles they would steadfastly maintain (such as quality). C.L. Grigg and his partners established networks of buyers, suppliers, and consumers throughout the United States, and subsequently globally, anchored in their vision of the Un-cola—a beverage beneficial to health and versatile enough to mix with anything.

I don’t know about you, but to this day, when I am feeling queasy or when I want something to mix with bourbon, I reach for a 7Up.