Always Coca-Cola? Not for Osama bin Laden, thanks.
Apparently, the suspected mastermind of Sept. 11's horror considers the soft drink (along with beef patties) a symbol of what's wrong with the United States. The British tabloid The Daily Star quoted him recently railing against Americans and their "hamburger and Coca-Cola values."
The newspaper did not put the comment in context, though, or say whether he elaborated. Did bin Laden mean to suggest Coke's empty calories as a metaphor? Or that ours is a mass-produced society full of unbelievers?
Whatever his precise point, the offhand remark joins a tradition of attacking the United States by taking aim, rhetorically or violently, at its most popular consumer brands.
For decades, America's enemies and critics have taken out their aggression on the Atlanta-based soft drink when it suited their aims. McDonald's, Disney, Pepsi and KFC have also provided angry people with handy symbols of American consumerism and supposed cultural dominance.
But, as the first inexpensive American consumer product to be sold widely around the world, Coke might be unmatched in seeing its American-ness both help and hurt its fortunes, says Frederick L. Allen, author of Secret Formula: How Brilliant Marketing and Relentless Salesmanship Made Coca-Cola the Best-Known Product in the World.
Overall, the company has profited handsomely from the tie-in to its home country, Allen says. Executives once even pondered using "United Taste of America - Coca-Cola" as its slogan, perhaps hoping to cash in on the same allure of U.S.-made products that made Levi's blue jeans the world's denim standard. Its current slogan is the humble "Always Coca-Cola."
"They will downplay any idea that there is a weighty significance to the product they put out," Allen says. "At the same time, they spend millions of dollars and manpower and effort to create an aura around the logo, the idea that their product transcends ordinary commerce."(Company executives could not be reached for comment. Two officials in the public relations department did not return phone calls. Neither did the company's in-house archivist.)
The downside to the soft drink's iconic status has been evident lately. In October, in response to U.S. bombing of Afghanistan, Maoist rebels attacked a Coca-Cola bottling plant in Hyderabad, India, and they attacked a Coke plant in Nepal last week. Also, The Bangkok Post reported that the Young Muslim Association of Thailand urged Thai Muslims to boycott Coke and other products that the paper calls "essential to their daily lives."
None of this surprises Frederic F. Brunel, an assistant professor of marketing at Boston University.
"In some parts of the world, Coca-Cola and hamburgers are seen as invader types of consumer goods that replace some local beverages or local foods," he says. "You have hamburgers and Coke infiltrating the traditional fabric of the culture. It's easy to look at it as being a parasite rather than a true component of traditional values of the culture."
The last thing Coke wants is to be labeled an enemy of Islam. Aside from the Islamic world's vast population, it is an attractive market because strict Muslims don't drink alcohol, and the poor can usually afford a Coke, Allen says.
Since it started in 1886, Coke has been a marketing phenomenon. One of its early owners, Asa Candler, plastered the country with Coke's scripted red-and-white logo on clocks, thermometers, Japanese fans, No. 2 pencils - anything he could find. A hundred years ago, he realized the concoction had gone national when he spotted a Coke poster in a photo of slain President William McKinley's funeral cortege, Allen says.
It wasn't until World War II that Coca-Cola went global, and it did so on the heels of the U.S. Army. The company used its political influence to avoid sugar rationing for its military sales. With help from key figures, including Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, it set up bottling plants in every theater of the war. That's how GIs got to sip 5-cent Cokes in their foxholes.
In those days, Allen says, Coke executives felt that the soft drink transcended politics, even when it came to the Allies and the Axis. During and after the war, the company noted that Adolf Hitler enjoyed the drink, he says. The company made a similar boast about another foe of the United States, Cuban leader Fidel Castro. "It was part of their marketing mindset that the more [prominent] figures you could show liking Coke, the better," Allen says.
After the war, the company ran into serious trouble in France, a country that takes its food and drink seriously.