Walter Mack the Pepsi CEO


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Walter S. Mack Jr. led an extraordinary life even by the standards of early 20th century American business titans, rising from humble beginnings to the upper echelons of industry and innovation while cultivating communities.

As President of Pepsi-Cola from 1938-1951, Mack shepherded his underdog company to national prominence through visionary strategy and marketing, fundamentally transforming the soda industry by taking the fight directly to cola hegemon Coca-Cola.

Though perhaps less remembered by the general public today, Mack’s intrepid and idealistic life of purpose episodically chronicled here should stand as an inspiring example that progress depends not on fortune’s favorable wings but the grit and grace embodied within industrious souls.


portrait of Walter Mack in the Navy
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Walter Staunton Mack Jr.'s journey to eventual legendary status in the business world had humble beginnings in New York City.

Born on October 19th, 1895 in the bustling borough of Manhattan, Mack embarked on his long path of education when he enrolled at the esteemed DeWitt Clinton High School in 1909.

After graduating from the rigorous college-preparatory public school in 1913, Mack set his sights on the Ivy League, attending the venerable Harvard College starting in the fall of that year.

Mack's time at Harvard, where he studied business, was interrupted by the outbreak of the First World War in Europe in 1914. Answering the Navy's call when the United States entered the global conflict in 1917, Mack paused his studies to serve his country with distinction.

Receiving his commission as an ensign, Mack saw wartime naval action in the frigid and unforgiving waters of the North Atlantic. He served aboard both destroyers and transport vessels, developing skills in leadership and logistics.

When the armistice signed on November 11, 1918, Mack returned stateside, ready to complete the education fate had momentarily disrupted.

Graduating Harvard with the class of 1917, the future titan of industry had unknowingly capped off the formative years that would provide the foundation for his eventual legendary success and influence in American business.


portrait of Walter Mack as pepsi's CEO
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When Walter S. Mack Jr. assumed Pepsi's presidency in 1938, the soft drink company was still a relatively small player in a market dominated by the behemoth Coca-Cola.

But Mack was unwilling to let Pepsi remain resigned to the status of a minor brand.

In a pivotal strategic decision that would reshape the landscape of the soda business, Mack determined Pepsi should set its sights not on rivaling other small soda purveyors, but instead make its primary competitor the very top of the market—Coca-Cola itself.

This bold gambit flew in the face of the conservative wisdom of the time—why instigate a fight Pepsi could not hope to win?

But Mack saw untapped possibility in directly taking on the number one soda maker. In the giant Coca-Cola, whose brand was ubiquitous across America, Mack perceived vulnerability hidden by Coke's very success.

With pluck and vision, Mack plotted Pepsi's path directly into Coke's flank, determined to undermine their supremacy.

It was a risky strategy—failure likely would have sunk the upstart soda company.

But success could elevate tiny Pepsi into the big leagues of American business. Mack's recognition of this asymmetrical risk dynamic was prescient foresight from a man determined not to accept the status quo.

By choosing competition with Coca-Cola over lesser rivals, Mack put Pepsi on the warpath to transform an entire industry.


vintage Pepsi ad
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Among Walter S. Mack Jr.'s innovative marketing tactics to fuel Pepsi's growth, perhaps none was more indelible and enduring than his 1939 introduction of the iconic "Pepsi-Cola Hits the Spot" jingle.

As President, Mack intuitively recognized the power of music in advertising long before it became mainstream.

Against the advice of contemporaries who favored verbose radio advertisements, Mack used Pepsi's marketing budget to drill the catchy song into America's collective consciousness.

The effects were immediate and profound. Set to an infectious melody, the concise lyrics emphasized Pepsi's core product strengths—a flavorsome soda packed with 12 ounces for just a nickel.

The repetition cemented Pepsi's value proposition in the minds of Depression-era consumers looking for refreshment without emptying their pockets.

Compared to the wordy ads filling radio airtime for a dime a dozen, Pepsi's musical mnemonic device was revolutionary.

But Mack's jingle was more than a manipulative gimmick—it reflected a profound understanding of forging emotional connections between consumer and brand.

In just a few rhyming bars, Mack gave Pepsi an outsized identity beyond just flavored, fizzy sugar water.

The "Pepsi-Cola Hits the Spot" earworm tapped into a demand for both refreshment and belonging—and would engender two generations of fierce brand loyalty spanning the globe.


black woman with a Pepsi
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Walter S. Mack Jr. understood that selling soda required more than just touting flavored syrup—it demanded cultivating loyalty amongst the communities Pepsi aimed to serve.

As President, Mack pushed aggressive promotion campaigns that went far beyond traditional advertising. He visualized innovative ways for the brand to add value and enrich people's lives beyond the bottle.

Notable was Pepsi's national scholarship program, launched in 1945 specifically to provide educational funding for promising Black students during segregation.

Later expanding to wider constituencies, Mack conceived of the scholarships as both a moral imperative and savvy maneuver—improving Pepsi's reputation amongst underserved markets Coke largely overlooked.

Additionally, Mack disrupted expectations by leveraging Pepsi's marketing budget to sponsor civic arts programming and community spaces for youth and veterans alike with no obvious connection to soft drinks.

More visionary than opportunist, Mack genuinely sought to create communal goodwill, recognizing the power of emotional rapport with consumers.

In forging these positive associations through promotions more philanthropic than commercial, Mack built invaluable brand loyalty that could not be purchased through ads alone.


Can of Pepsi
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Even in his later years as Pepsi's President, Walter S. Mack Jr. continued his relentless innovation in the soft drink business.

Though glass bottles were long standardized, Mack again showed his foresight by pioneering efforts to sell Pepsi in the young format of metal cans.

Against skepticism even from his own Board of Directors, Mack pushed heavy investment into canning equipment and processes in the early 1950s, making Pepsi the first national soda brand available in aluminum cans as an alternative to bottles.

It was a characteristically gutsy move from a visionary unwilling to rest on industry conventions. The tinny, metallic taste of early cans posed formidable obstacles, and the first experimental batches were written off by Mack's detractors as a costly novelty.

But the long-term advantages of slim, durable, and portable cans were clear to Mack even in Pepsi's infancy within the format.

Mack's canning initiative well-positioned Pepsi to dominate modern supermarket shelves and vending machines in the decades ahead.

Once again Mack achieved the innovator's balance between patience and urgency—embracing the edge of progress while understanding new technology's needed refinement before transformation.

His pioneering spirit brought immense competitive advantage to cement Pepsi's market share long after he departed the company. Even late in his storied tenure, Mack's perseverant belief in soda's canned future bore fruit for Pepsi's lasting legacy.


bottle of King-Cola
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Walter S. Mack Jr.'s storied tenure as President officially concluded in the mid-1950s when he exited Pepsi's executive leadership.

But Mack's restless business spirit and visionary ambitions could not be contained even in retirement. Though faded from the public eye, he spent subsequent decades directing an array of disparate companies across industries as diverse as his eclectic career.

Even into his 80s, Mack continued chasing the next big entrepreneurial spark.

In 1978, the aging but still idealistic business leader leveraged his fortune and experience for one last major endeavor—starting his own challenger cola company named King-Cola Corporation.

Though lacking a true royal pedigree, Mack intended for King-Cola to reign above rivals through product quality and lean operations.

Alas, the scrappy soda startup fizzled in grand style when it declared bankruptcy just three years later in 1981.

Mack discovered besting the billionaire brand Goliaths co-opting the cola market required more than his practiced moxie.

The failure proved a sobering coda to Mack's long career.

But rather than bitterness in defeat, Mack took the loss in a poised stride.

He stayed active in various directing and advisory roles well into the 1980s, though now content away from the captain's chair.

Mack used his late seasons to focus on advocacy work for older laborers and mentor the next generation of business innovators he helped inspire. The final chapters of Walter Mack's story were written in the spirit of collaboration he had pioneered his entire intrepid life.


Walter Mack as an old man
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Leading Pepsi for over a decade and continuing his directorial roles, one could forgive Walter S. Mack Jr. for fully retiring by his early 60s like most executives.

Yet Mack proved anything but conventional. While his maverick risk-taking may have mellowed, Mack's passion for innovation and improvement persisted all the way to his venerable 90s.

Ever the radical, Mack dedicated his President Emeritus years not to rounds of golf or beachside lounging, but championing economic dignity for marginalized older workers.

Mack brought first hand perspective when he testified for Congressional committees and federal advisory boards about ageism's crippling impacts on both seasoned employees and businesses.

He also invested in companies pioneering older worker advocacy and senior-living health services - putting money behind his principles.  

Even as a nonagenarian, Mack woke daily with the famous vigor that characterized his entire working life.

He undertook ventures like gardening, furniture craftsmanship, and memoir-writing more for the nourishment of an active mind than profit.

When lung disease and heart failure finally compelled his retirement just months shy of 95, Walter Mack exited the stage while still professing the labor he loved.  

Until the last, Mack lived the creed that one's twilights should burn every bit as bright as dawn's first light. His tireless example led the way for generations of bold leaders and honorable workers endeavoring toward purpose over pension.

When the final bell rang for American business icon Walter Staunton Mack Jr. on March 18th, 1990, the legacy he etched guided the progress to which he devoted one extraordinary life.