Fruit, 61, Left Indelible Marks on A-B and Coke

Took an Early Bet on 'American Idol' and ESPN and Established a Legacy of Innovation

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CHICAGO (AdAge.com) -- Charles B. "Chuck" Fruit -- who transformed two of the nation's top beverage marketers; was among the first to spot, and invest in, the potential of ESPN and "American Idol"; and helped invent modern sports marketing -- is being lauded on Madison Avenue following his unexpected death.

Chuck Fruit

Charles B. "Chuck" Fruit

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In the days following the passing of Mr. Fruit, 61, who suffered a heart attack while swimming at his home last week, colleagues and acquaintances recalled his personal warmth, tireless work ethic and his long list of marketing innovations during three decades at Coca-Cola, where he was chief marketing officer, and Anheuser-Busch, where he led the company's media and sports-marketing efforts.

"When you first started working with Chuck, it was immediately clear that he was a true innovator," recalled Charles Frenette, a former Coca-Cola CMO who also served as chief operating officer of the soft-drink behemoth's European and African divisions. "But what snuck up on you was the fact that he was a tremendous leader who consistently inspired great respect from everyone he worked with. People wanted to be around him."

That track record for innovation began at A-B, where Mr. Fruit is credited with launching today's sports-marketing juggernaut and pioneering many now-ubiquitous tactics. His idea to put the Budweiser logo on boxing-ring posts, where it would be constantly on camera, ultimately led to the widespread plastering of corporate logos on professional playing surfaces.

But his signature achievement there was a huge early bet on a little-known cable channel called ESPN. The $10 million deal -- which made A-B the exclusive beer sponsor of the all-sports channel -- met with some resistance within the company's St. Louis headquarters. "At that time, I don't think ESPN was even available in St. Louis," said Jack MacDonough, A-B's VP-international marketing at the time, who later became CEO of Miller Brewing. "He was pitching this huge buy and most of us were saying, 'Who needs it?'"

Smart investment
But Mr. Fruit and his boss, VP-corporate marketing Michael Roarty, won out and made the buy. As ESPN erupted over the decade that followed, A-B was locked into the bargain rate it had secured early on, and its chief competitor, Miller, was cut out of what became a crucial venue for reaching beer-swilling sports fans.

Mr. Roarty credited Mr. Fruit's media-spending savvy and aggressive sports strategy for playing a "central role" in one of the most prosperous periods in A-B's history, in which it successfully launched Bud Light, today the world's largest beer brand, and opened up a gaping market-share advantage over Miller. "He was an integral part of the group that did all that," Mr. Roarty said. "Nobody worked harder."

Indeed, Mr. Fruit's first 10 years at A-B were marked by a constant struggle with kidney disease. Mr. Roarty recalled Mr. Fruit undergoing dialysis treatments during road trips and at conventions and still working as long as anyone. Mr. Fruit received a kidney transplant from his sister in 1986, and in 2005, he became chairman of the National Kidney Foundation.

In 1991, Mr. Fruit left A-B for Coca-Cola, where he held a variety of sports and media-related positions. Among his early achievements was his involvement with the launch of the long-running "Always Coca-Cola" campaign. He also played a pivotal role in getting the marketer to look beyond 30-second spots and into less-traditional buys and sponsorships.

Former Coca-Cola VP David Raines said Mr. Fruit spearheaded a fundamental shift in the way Coca-Cola looked at marketing deals. "We had a bad habit in the past of just being ubiquitous: a sign in the stadium and owning everything," said Mr. Raines, who today is media director at Miller Brewing. "But Chuck clearly understood the need to own the right things and ... activate the property with the consumer in a meaningful way. Don't just be wallpaper."

Foresight
At Coca-Cola, Mr. Fruit championed integrated-marketing arrangements, in 2000 inking the first major deal involving all four ESPN channels, ABC Sports programming, ESPN the Magazine and ESPN.com. "He had an uncanny ability to see what was next," said Edward Erhardt, president of customer marketing and sales at ESPN. Like his boxing-ring posts, those arrangements are commonplace today.

But perhaps Mr. Fruit's biggest score on that front was an early bet on Fox's "American Idol." The hit show, which at first appeared to be a "Star Search" knock-off to many Coke executives, did little to excite anyone beyond Mr. Fruit at first, Mr. Raines said.

"The early 'American Idol' deal was not an easy sell internally, because it wasn't obvious to a lot of people that it was going to be an enormous hit," Mr. Raines said. "Chuck was a real visionary. He could see opportunity and possibility where others might look at a proposal or an idea, and they just wouldn't see it."

Mr. Fruit retired from a full-time role at Coca-Cola in 2005, following his second stint as CMO there. His remaining years were spent consulting for Coca-Cola and Miller (which was being led by a team of former Coca-Cola executives), serving on major media boards, including TiVo and Gannett, and chairing the National Kidney Foundation.

Upcoming celebrations
"Chuck was a leader among leaders, inspiring others like me to dream and embrace the present and not dwell in the past," said Laura Desmond, CEO, Starcom MediaVest Group, the Americas. "His story lives on through his family, through iconic brands like Coca-Cola and communications companies like SMG. His legacy of accomplishments and admirers fill many lifetimes, and he will forever be remembered for his profound sense of humanity and professional acumen."

SMG said that in the coming months it will be hosting an industrywide celebration for Mr. Fruit "designed to celebrate his life and the lasting gifts of poise, pride and professionalism that he has given to us all."
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