Coffee-Mate and the Meaning of Life

By Robert Friedman

In my last corporate gig I was interim director of marketing on Coffee-Mate. I managed intellectually challenging projects like making sure that Coffee-Mate floor decals were produced.  

One day, while hiking my favorite trail in the Santa Monica Mountains my identity crisis started taking shape: I cannot spend my career trying to get people to buy more artificial, processed non-dairy creamer. If, at the end of my life, I looked back and asked “how did I use my talents at work?” and the answer was “they bought more Coffee-Mate,” I knew I would be devastated. I would have squandered my potential. I have more to offer the world.

I questioned, “Did I need to do something else entirely?” Psychology? Become an academic? A race car driver?

Then I asked another question: Are any brands doing something worthwhile?

That’s when I realized, I was working on Coffee-Mate, but someone else was working on Nike. Down the hall sat the Carnation Instant Breakfast team but another team was working on Apple.

What was the difference? Was it simply sneakers and computers versus coffee creamer and breakfast bars? No, I didn’t feel that one product category was “better” than another.

The difference was the underlying intention of the brand. I felt that the real difference between Nike and Apple and the Nestle brands was the impact that they would have on the lives of their customers.

Was Nike just trying to sell me a pair of sneakers? I didn’t see it that way. I saw Nike — with the message, “Just Do It” — not so much as a product but a force that was propelling me to be a hero in my own life. Yes, maybe to work out, but also to start a business. Nike’s primary purpose was to provide a meaningful experience, not just to sell me more stuff.

Coffee-Mate? Stuff. And not very good stuff at that.

I realized that there were some brands— great brands – that were doing something right. I was driven to figure out what they were doing so that I could do it too. Ultimately, I did.