by Jill Richardson
May 20, 2013
Mark Pendergast's book, "For God,
Country, and Coca-Cola"
guides readers through decades of shrewd
and the company's ugly history.
'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
He even reveals the drink’s
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
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
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
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.
Coca-Cola told us it wanted to teach the
world to sing, but it’s far more likely it is giving the world
Today, a small Coke at McDonalds is 16 ounces. Pendergast,
ever the balanced journalist presenting both sides, fails to
definitely state that
Coca-Cola is unhealthy.
He generously points
out that Coca-Cola creates jobs and donates to charity, even though
he notes the company’s policy of “strategic philanthropy” - i.e.
using “charitable” donations to gain access to valuable markets,
The book is a long and somewhat
exhausting read, but it’s also a captivating history of the
development of America’s consumer culture (and terrible dietary
habits) and it contains fascinating profiles of the men (yes, mostly
men) behind the company, making readers wonder what a psychologist
might have to say about these often tyrannical, driven workaholics.
Here are some answers Pendergast gave
about his book and the company he wrote about.
Why did you choose the title 'For God, Country, and
Mark Pendergast: Coca-Cola
has been a kind of religion to many people, including the
inventor, John Pemberton, who died two years after he came up
with it, and Asa Candler, who took it over and used to lead the
singing of "Onward Christian Soldiers" at his sales meetings.
These were days when the drink was
under attack for having cocaine in it and even afterwards for
its caffeine content. So they felt like early Christian martyrs
in a way, fighting for a just cause.
Candler called Coca-Cola "a
boon to mankind." Coke employees have always joked that they
have Coca-Cola syrup flowing in their veins.
The drink has also become a kind of
religion for consumers, a symbol of the American way of life as
well. During World War II the drink was deemed an "essential
morale booster" for the troops, and it was served in lieu of
communion wine during the Battle of the Bulge. When New Coke was
introduced in 1985, people wrote anguished letters as if they
had killed God.
Here is an actual letter I quoted in the book:
"There are only two things in my life: God and Coca-Cola. Now
you have taken one of those things away from me."
I could go
Can you explain Coca-Cola's relationship with the two
ingredients in its name, coca and kola nuts? How much cocaine
was initially in the product and when was it removed?
MP: Coca-Cola was named for its two
principal drug ingredients.
Coca leaf from Peru contained
cocaine. Kola nut from Ghana contained caffeine. Original
Coca-Cola had a very small amount of cocaine in a six-ounce
drink, about 4.3 milligrams.
The company took out all but a
minuscule amount of cocaine in 1903 and the final amount in
You imply in the book that it's attempted to sugarcoat (no
pun intended) this part of its past, saying at some points that
the product never contained cocaine. Is that true? Can you
MP: Every time I go to the World of
Coca-Cola museum in Atlanta, I ask the guides if Coca-Cola ever
They assure me that it did not. The official
company line seems to be that Coca-Cola never contained
added cocaine - i.e., they didn't add white powdered
cocaine, which is true.
But it did contain fluid extract of coca
leaf, which contains cocaine. For years, the company line has
also been that the name "Coca-Cola" is just a "euphonious
combination of words" - i.e., it sounds nice.
True, but the
drink was also named for its two principal drug sources.
How did Coca-Cola use World War II to establish its dominance
abroad? And what impact did its role in the war have for their
market at home?
MP: Robert Woodruff, the head of
Coca-Cola, declared shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor
"We will see that every man in uniform gets a bottle of
Coca-Cola for five cents, wherever he is and whatever it costs
Coke was subsequently declared an essential
product and Coke men called Technical Observers were sent
overseas in army uniforms at government expense to establish 64
bottling plants behind the lines.
As a result, Coca-Cola was put
in position for global expansion in the postwar world.
American soldiers came home with an
overwhelming preference for Coca-Cola. In a 1948 poll of
veterans, conducted by American Legion Magazine, 63.67
percent specified Coca-Cola as their preferred soft drink, with
Pepsi receiving a lame 7.78 percent of the vote.
In the same
year, Coke’s gross profit on sales reached a whopping $126
million, as opposed to Pepsi’s $25 million; the contrast in net
after-tax income was even more telling, with Coke’s $35.6
million towering over Pepsi’s pathetic $3.2 million.
Soon after the war, when the Army
quizzed 650 recruits, 21 had never drunk milk, but only one
soldier had never sampled a Coke.
As the company’s unpublished
history stated, the wartime program,
“made friends and customers
for home consumption of 11,000,000 GIs [and] did [a] sampling
and expansion job abroad which would [otherwise] have taken 25
years and millions of dollars.”
The war was over, and it
appeared, at least for the moment, that Coca-Cola had won it.
The impact when Coca-Cola entered new markets was increased
sales for all beverages, not just Coca-Cola - and less
consumption of water and milk. Can you explain that?
As Coca-Cola and
subsequently other competing soda companies increased marketing
and other campaigns to out-do one another, that's what expanded
the total soda market.
When the market for soft drinks expanded,
it helped competitors such as Pepsi, and when people are paying
attention to the cola wars, they are less focused on water or
Coca-Cola's history practically reads like a marketing
textbook. Can you tell us about its revelation of the little
girl's Pooh bear? Why do Coke-drinkers love Coke so much?
MP: Archie Lee, who was the ad man
behind "The Pause That Refreshes" slogan during the Depression,
noticed during a beach vacation, that his four-year-old daughter
lavished such attention on her Pooh bear that other children
fought over it, though other toys appeared more attractive.
took the incident as a parable.
“It isn’t what a product is,” he
wrote to Robert Woodruff, “but what it does that interests
...and set out to plant the proper thoughts about Coca-Cola,
which he wanted to make as popular and well-loved as the Pooh
Coke lovers care so much about the
drink for many reasons - not least the ubiquitous, effective
advertising that associates the drink with youth, energy,
happiness. But many people also really do associate the drink
with some of the best times in their lives.
How has soda consumption changed in the U.S. from the drink's
introduction over a century ago, back when a serving was 6.5
Was there ever a "turning point" when Americans switched
from more modest per capita soda consumption to the amount they
drink today, or has it been a gradual change over time?
MP: Amazingly, Coca-Cola was served
in 6.5 ounce bottles for a nickel until 1955, when King-Size
Coke was finally introduced. (“King-Size” drinks were 10 and 12
ounces, smaller than a McDonald’s small today.)
Since then, the
sizes grew steadily larger, and PET bottles meant they wouldn't
break and weren't too heavy. Super-size me, indeed.
But over the
last decade, concern over the obesity epidemic has made
Coca-Cola back off a bit, and now the company has introduced
smaller mini-cans, along with the huge containers.
Over the years, Coca-Cola has dealt with Nazis, dictators,
South Africa's apartheid government, and even allegedly
Guatemalan death squads.
Should consumers hold Coke accountable
for this dark part of its history, or is it all water under the
bridge? Do you agree with Coke's position that it doesn't play
politics, it just sells soda?
MP: Of course, the company, like any
other business, should be held accountable for its actions,
although as you suggest, many of these episodes are safely in
The Guatemalan death squads were in the late 1970s.
Paramilitaries in Colombia killed union employees in similar
fashion in Coke bottling plants in the 1990s.
Quite recently, human rights
violations have once again occurred against Guatemalan bottling
The Coca-Cola Company has usually attempted to
distance itself from such violence, saying that it doesn't
control its bottlers, but that seems disingenuous, since the
bottlers rely on Coca-Cola syrup from Big Coke.
On the other hand, let me point out
that while Coke did business inside South Africa during the
apartheid regime, it left the country for a while and then was
very instrumental in helping to ease a peaceful transition to
black rule under Nelson Mandela.
The past decade has ushered in an enormous change in
Coca-Cola's product portfolio. How has it changed and why? Do
you think the day will come when Coca-Cola's flagship product is
no longer its top seller?
MP: Coca-Cola has diversified in the
face of increased competition from other types of beverages and
in response to concern over the obesity epidemic.
It purchased Glaceau, maker of Vitaminwater, for $4.1 billion, for instance,
in 2007. Today the Coca-Cola Company sells 3,500 beverages
worldwide, and about a quarter of them are low- or no-calorie.
The future is hard to predict, but I
don't think that Coca-Cola will lose its place as the flagship
product in the foreseeable future - but I do predict that the
combined sales of Diet Coke and Coca-Cola Zero will eventually
surpass sales of regular sugary Coca-Cola.