The History of the Big Gulp

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In the 1970s the average can of soda weighed about six ounces. Nowadays you can buy one weighing 32 ounces or more from 7-11s and other convenience stores.

The reason for this dramatic increase can be traced in part back to the history of the ‘Big Gulp’, 7-11s iconic colossal drink.

Today we look at the history of the Gulp, who created it? Who bought it? And why did it become so popular?

Birth

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In the early 1970s, Dennis Potts, then merchandise manager for 7-11 in Southern California was faced with a dire situation. Sales were down and there was little to suggest that things would be improving in the near future. So serious was the situation that Potts later remarked

“It was a sort of a ‘we-need-to-do-something-or-get-out-of-the-business’ situation.”

Potts’s desperation caught the attention of Coca-Cola, who in 1976 sent representatives to the merchandise manager with a strange proposition. Coca Cola wanted to create a new 32 ounce cup for their drinks, a previously unheard of amount. The largest size at the time was 20 ounces, and even that was considered to be monstrous. Instinctively Potts refused, claiming that the Cups were “too damn big” and in Potts’s defence, he was right. The design for the 32-ounce cups was square on the bottom and resembled your average milk cartoon.

Coca-Cola

Coca Cola first came up with the idea for the Big Gulp

In spite of Potts’s protestations, the Cola reps convinced Potts to take two cases of cups and at least give them a try. After all, what did he have to lose? To Potts’s credit, he gave the cups their best chance of success by sending them down to Orange County, the region with the highest soft drinks sales, and told 7-11 stores to sell them for 50 cents each.

Unexpected Success

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Within a week of their arrival in Orange County, the two boxes of 32 ounce cups had been cleared out with everyone and their cousin picking up a ‘Big Gulp’. The public were engaged and Potts was keen to capitalize;

Once we heard we sold 500 cups in a week, we got the message dog gone fast. “We moved as quickly as we could to get this thing out. It just took off like gangbusters.”

The cups soon spread to 30 more 7-11s across the West Coast of America and in doing so, helped to double soft drink sales for the convenience chain.

New Designs

The company soon hit a speed bump however when it received news that the supplier of the ‘Big Gulp’ cup was relocating to Canada and would be taking a several month layoff. It was the last thing Potts wanted to hear at the height of the Gulp’s success and he assembled a team tasked with creating a new design. They eventually settled on the current design shown below

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Although few were confidant the new design would prove a success. Indeed, Potts believed it was the novelty of the milk cartoon style Gulp that captured the public’s attention. Fortunately for him and unfortunately for epidemiologists everywhere, the new design helped bring the Gulp into even more households.

Popularity

So how can one account for the popularity of the Big Gulp in an increasingly health conscious United States? After all the Big Gulp was born during the low-fat craze and discourse about public health.

It would appear to be the interplay between size and economy that has attracted so many US consumers. The ‘Big Gulp’ is the equivalent of the Big Mac or All-You-Can-Eat buffet, a seemingly endless commodity available at a bottom dollar price.

Coupled with this, the 7-11 marketing team has been hugely successful in convincing consumers that the Big Gulp represents freedom of choice for the consumer. According to the marketers, no one has the right to stop someone choosing a Big Gulp lest they suffer the wrath of the consumer. This message has permeated throughout US society and helped give the Big Gulp an almost mythical status in the US. Indeed, if one casts their minds back to New York Major Bloomberg’s attempts to curtail soda in the East Coast State, they’re reminded of the endless criticism that the Major was restricting freedom of choice.

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All of this means that the Big Gulp is now firmly established as a staple of the economic and dietary landscape in the United States. Whether or not that’s a good thing is a matter of opinion.

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