BOOK REVIEW / Under the lid of the real thing: 'For God, Country and Coca-Cola' - Mark Pendergrast: Weidenfeld, 20 pounds

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The Independent Culture
ONE OF THE selling points of this fat, laptop-sized book is that at the end, in a separate appendix, the author gives away . . . the secret recipe. Amazing] A blend of oils and spices devised in the 1880s by a Southern quack and morphine addict named John Pemberton, this was the blueprint for the most successful product in the history of the world, the formula for Coca-Cola, which has, until now, remained secret, carefully hidden and coded, for more than a century.

So how did Mark Pendergrast get hold of it? One day, while conducting some of the extraordinarily deep research which shows in every one of this book's 500 pages, the author was in the company's archives, and the archivist, Phil Mooney, handed him a yellowed file, which contained . . . the formula. Pendergrast was bowled over. He photocopied the document, and conducted some independent research to see if it was genuine. He cross-checked with Mladin Zarubica, an American who in 1946 had been asked by President Truman and General Mark Clark to formulate a white version of Coca-Cola for the Russian war hero General Georgi Zhukhov - Zhukhov loved Coke, but couldn't be seen drinking an imperialist symbol. And indeed, Zarubica's formula tallied with the one Pendergrast had been given.

Next, Pendergrast asked a company spokesman what would happen if he printed the formula. Might it lead to somebody else setting up in direct competition? The Coca-Cola spokesman said: 'We've spent over a hundred years and untold amounts of money building the equity of that brand name. Without our economies of scale and our incredible marketing system, whoever tried to duplicate our product would get nowhere.' In other words, the drink itself, which is 99 per cent sugared water, means virtually nothing. Or, as advertising executive Paul Foley says: 'We're selling smoke. They're drinking the image, not the product.'

This book is a detailed history of the 100 years of building that image, the untold amounts of money, the advertising, the boardroom struggles, the fighting between bottlers and marketers, the horrendous blunders, the ticker-tape parades. In the 1880s, Coca- Cola was a patent medicine with minute traces of cocaine and caffeine derived from the kola nut; hardly different from hundreds of other products. So what made it so successful? For one thing, the company was based in Atlanta, 'the centre of a web of rails'. Also, it took advantage of the fact that, at first, people associated it with something wicked and even rather dangerous, both because of the cocaine content of the original formula (though this element was dropped at the turn of the century), and because of a series of risque ads - a 1907 poster depicts a woman lying on a bed, skirt pushed up above her stocking tops and an empty Coke bottle on the bedside table; the caption is: 'Satisfied'.

Mostly, though, Pendergrast's book shows us that Coca-Cola succeeded not because of what it was - the secret recipe - but because people who were living in a huge, multicultural, violent, ever-changing society needed something to represent them collectively, something reliable, universal, stable. If it hadn't been Coke, it would have been one of the other products pushing for Coke's status - Levis, Hershey chocolate bars, perhaps even Pepsi.

The story gets better as it goes along, as Coca-Cola gets more successful and its mystique develops. At first, the events seem quite sensible and logical, as the company grows under men like the hypochondriac Asa Candler, who believed in the medicinal value of the product, and Robert Woodruff, who presided over a series of mildly suggestive Coke ads in the 1920s before Coke came to represent, after the Fifties, clean-living, all-American values.

But the book really takes off in the chapter called 'The Marketing Blunder of the Century', which is the story of how, in 1985, Coke's boss Roberto Goizueta changed the drink's flavour. Struggling against Pepsi, who had thrown down the gauntlet with 'the Pepsi Challenge' (which asked consumers to try Pepsi and see if they preferred it), Coke had lost one per cent of its market share in 1984. So, amid a media fanare, Goizueta made Coke smoother and sweeter, calling it 'New Coke'. What he forgot was that, because the slogan was 'Coke is it', he would have to ditch the old formula: there could only be one Coke. He got Bill Cosby to do an advertisement, saying: 'The words I'm about to say will change the course of history. Here they are. Coca-Cola has a new taste.'

But people hated it; thousands wrote letters of complaint to the company. One wrote: 'Changing Coke is like breaking the American Dream.' Another wrote: 'There are only two things in my life: God and Coca-Cola. Now you have taken one of those things away from me.' When the company decided to revert to the original formula, newspapers ran the story ahead of President Reagan's cancer operation, and newsreader Peter Jennings interrupted a soap opera to tell America the news.

When you get to the end, your head is buzzing with facts: Coca- Cola sells in 185 nations; it is the most universally recognised word on earth; the company spends dollars 4bn a year on advertising. And then you get to the bit about the secret formula. But by then you really don't want to know; it means almost nothing.