After a century as a Southern icon, the Internet is helping one soda go national.
Cheerwine is a soft-drink icon in parts of the South — it’s a beverage that is synonymous with Carolina and irreplaceable in the minds of the beverage’s many fans.
However, finding a bottle of the cherry cola is nearly impossible in other regions, a fact that causes major problems for Cheerwine devotees.
“You have to understand that Cheerwine has a huge cult following,” Cheerwine’s vice president for marketing, Tom Barbitta, told the New York Times in 2011, “and the people who love it are fanatics. One of them described it to me as ‘adult crack.'”
Cheerwine was launched in 1917, in Salisbury, North Carolina by general store owner L. D. Peeler.
In the 99 years since its inception, the soda has stayed in the family. Today, L.D. Peeler’s great-grandson Cliff Ritchie the CEO and president of Cheerwine’s parent company, Carolina Beverage Corporation.
Cheerwine can now be purchased in specialty markets across the US such as Cost Plus World Market, as well as at independent retailers and restaurant chains with roots in the South.
— Mayor Chris V. Rey (@ChrisReyNC) April 16, 2016
However, the Internet has completely changed how the beverage is bought and sold. While Cheerwine only entered Southeastern states such as Kentucky and Tennessee in the last 10 years, today, customers can purchase the beverage online no matter where they live.
“Cheerwine’s reach extends far beyond the traditional distribution channels — many people order Cheerwine online and customers have been bringing Cheerwine to their shelves on their own from New York to California and many stops in between,” Joy Ritchie, Cheerwine’s head of marketing, told Business Insider.
Scrolling through social media and looking up some of the brand’s most notable partnerships, it becomes clear that a major part of Cheerwine’s appeal is its strictly Southern credentials.
The company calls the drink the “Nectar of North Carolina,” with the slogan “Born in the South. Raised in a glass.” It’s the official soft drink of the National Barbecue Association.
Old country store Cracker Barrel and sister chain Holler and Dash both serve up the beverage, while North Carolina-based Krispy Kreme sells a Cheerwine doughnut during the summer months.
Canton, Ohio-based Old Carolina Barbecue solidified its Carolina credentials when it became the first restaurant chain in Ohio to offer Cheerwine as a fountain drink in 2010.
New York City’s trendy Southern restaurant Root & Bone serves up the beverage, calling it a “true Southern delicacy” on Instagram.
Indie country band The Avett Brothers, a group founded in Charlotte, North Carolina, have repeatedly partnered with the brand for benefit concerts. Basically, to be a fan of the regional favourite indicates an automatic Southern stamp of approval.
Of course, Cheerwine lovers say that they don’t love the beverage because of its North Carolina roots (or at least, not purely for its Carolina roots).
“People not from the south may not understand the draw of Cheerwine, but there is nothing else like it, and we’ve tried it all,” reads one five-star Amazon review from a customer who moved from North Carolina to Arizona and could no longer find Cheerwine. “It’s not just cherry soda; it’s how it’s made, the taste of the water, the smells in the air that all flavour the ingredients in a way that can not be reproduced.”
According to the company, it’s these loyal fans that have helped Cheerwine grow beyond its dedicated Carolina market.
“Few soft drinks can count on a following as loyal as Cheerwine’s, where fans are proud to be ambassadors, feel personal ownership of the brand, and share its values,” says Ritchie.
Cheerwine will likely never be as big as Pepsi or Coca-Cola (though the company has teamed up with Pepsi in certain markets to bottle and distribute the beverage).
However, in an era when consumers are increasingly turning away from soda, a loyal customer base is something many of the biggest names in the soft drinks business lack — even if many of these customers have to shop online if they want to get their Cheerwine fix.