How Coca-Cola's Ruthless Business Tactics Created a Despicable Global Powerhouse
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For God, Country, and Coca-Cola by Mark Pendergast is the definitive history of the product so many see as a symbol of America itself. This impressive tome – recently released as a third edition with added new material – is not a critique of Coca-Cola, nor is it a fan’s tribute, as Pendergast reveals things the Coca-Cola Company doesn’t want you to know. (Yes, it used to contain cocaine.) He even reveals the drink’s original secret formula (which is less exciting than you might think).
Coca-Cola is not fascinating for what it is – colored sugar water with bubbles – but for what it represents. And that’s a point long known by the company’s marketers, with the exception of when they forgot it during the New Coke fiasco in the 1980s. Today, marketing students in business schools everywhere study that famous gaff.
Despite the decades-old slogan, “Delicious and Refreshing,” people do not drink Coca-Cola for the taste. They drink it because they associate it with positive things like friendship, fun, patriotism, and athleticism. Careful to market the drink to all people, everywhere, without alienating anyone, the ads are often vague. “Coke is It!” What is “it”? It’s whatever you want it to be, just as long as it makes you want to buy more Coke!
The book guides readers through the decades of marketing campaigns that built this image, most significantly during World War II, when Coca-Cola was made available to U.S. soldiers everywhere in the world, often at the government’s expense. When sales slumped, the answer was never changing the flagship product; it was a new ad campaign. Remind consumers that Coke = fun (or simpler times, or hope, or whatever feeling they crave) and they will drink more of it.
Because constant, never-ending growth is seen as essential, the other necessity is finding new channels to facilitate more Coke-drinking than ever before. Today, you can be 50 miles from nowhere in any country except Cuba and North Korea and if you crave an ice-cold Coca-Cola, you can get one. Even in places where few have clean drinking water or electricity, both needed to produce ice-cold Coke, some enterprising entrepreneur will have electricity and a cooler and plenty of Coke. The same cannot be said of nearly any other product.
The New Coke failure punctuates this strange phenomenon – that the world loves and guzzles an unhealthy beverage, but not for its good taste. Pepsi showed that in blind taste tests, more people prefer Pepsi over Coke. New Coke was tastier than both Coke and Pepsi in blind taste tests. Surely consumers would love it. Except, they didn’t. They wanted fun, hope, patriotism, and everything else they associated with good, old-fashioned Coca-Cola, not some new, better-tasting concoction.
Readers seeking the dirt on Coca-Cola’s sordid past with Columbian paramilitaries and Guatemalan death squads will find these episodes covered briefly in this book. But the completeness of the company’s history in this book paints a bigger picture, and Coca-Cola’s tangles with death squads fit in as just one piece.
This is a company devoted to, above all else, making as much money as possible and selling as much Coca-Cola as possible. Period. Nazis get thirsty, too, you know. In almost every case, the company tried to please everyone and sell to everyone, without taking sides, unless it had no choice.
It’s no good that Coca-Cola did business with a Guatemalan bottler who allegedly hired death squads to murder employees trying to unionize. But that is all part of a larger pattern, a larger scandal – although there’s no conspiracy at all. The drive to increase profits and sales and market share at all cost is the company’s story, plain and simple. It took us from a 6.5-ounce drink only available at soda fountains to one available everywhere in sizes as large as 64 ounces.