USA: BOOK REVIEW - FOR GOD, COUNTRY AND COCA-COLA - REVIEW BY ROBERT DAWSON. - By Mark Pendergrast. Weidenfeld and Nicolson; 556pp; £20.

by Robert Dawson is a freelance writer.
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

By Mark Pendergrast. Weidenfeld and Nicolson; 556pp; £20.

The trouble with company histories is that they're rather like holiday snaps. All very interesting if they're yours, rather tedious if they're someone else's. Mark Pendergrast neatly skirts this problem by placing his detailed account of Coca-Cola within the context of American culture and its influence on the 20th century.

It works. The best quality of this book - and it has many - is its balance. Coca-Cola arouses such strong emotions that the truth is easily obscured. There is the saccharined official version you will find at the Coca-Cola museum in Atlanta. There is also the big bad multi-national so beloved of conspiracy theorists, the giant that buys-off governments, awards valuable bottling concessions to despots and manipulates peasants into parting with the cost of a day's food for a warm sticky bottle of Coke.

It's hardly surprising the company has attracted so much attention. Coke is the world's most recognised word, let alone brand. Instant recognition makes it an easy target for anyone wanting to take a pot shot at American cultural imperialism - though even protestors will admit that many other multinationals have far worse records regarding working conditions, labour exploitation and support of oppressive regimes.

But what exactly are we drinking when we crack open a can of Coke? Stripped to its essentials, Coca-Cola is no more than a carbonated soft drink consisting 99% of sugared water. Probe a little deeper and we find a caffeine-laced refreshment. Not quite the pick-me-up it was, since the spoilsports removed the cocaine in 1903. However that is to miss the point about Coca-Cola. Whenever we reach out for the 'pause that refreshes', what we're really doing is imbibing from the soda fountain of the American dream.

Coca-Cola is an essential case history for anyone interested in either the global organisation or the development of advertising. Aided by the innovative D'Arcy agency, Coca-Cola pioneered the modern advertisement, abandoning the long-winded testimonials in favour of a simple, direct message. Coke is cheap to produce, and the high mark up has enabled the company to spend a huge proportion of its revenue on relentless promotion. The staggering brand awareness which the drink enjoys today is a legacy of billions of dollars invested over a century.

Early chapters place Coca-Cola within its sociological and historical context. At the end of the l9th century cocaine was the new wonder drug, yet the threat of prohibition loomed constantly on the horizon. John Pemberton's soft drink seemed the perfect marketing solution but it was just one of hundreds of competing tonics or patent medicines. As it gained a toe-hold in the south, people would walk into soda fountains and ask for a 'dope', a custom that threw Asa Candler, puritanical founder of the modern company, into paroxysms of rage.

Pendergrast has enjoyed extensive access to company archives and to senior personnel. The only area of cageyness concerned the couple of individuals privy to the secret 7X ingredient of the formula. Any information about their movements, or about the logistics of moving the ingredient to bottling plants around the world, was strictly off-limits. To little avail. Someone mistakenly gave Pendergrast a copy of the original recipe, which he faithfully reproduces in the appendix.

The calamitous decision to tinker with the recipe in 1985 came about as a result of blind tastings which showed that consumers preferred the sweeter taste of Pepsi. 'The Imitator', as it's known by company men to whom the mention of the upstart's name is tantamount to blasphemy, has almost always been a thorn in the giant's side. Steady inroads into Big Coke's market share was creating panic at corporate HQ. So, after extensive market research, NewCoke was launched. Americans may have wanted a sweeter taste, but they didn't like the idea of anyone messing with their Coke. It was like whipping away a national security blanket. Company switch-boards and mailbags were overwhelmed. Eventually Coca-Cola succumbed to public pressure, restoring the original as 'Classic Coke'.

It all sounds like insanity, but that's Coca-Cola. Everything connected with the beverage seems devoid of any sense of proportion. Yet For God, Country and Coca-Cola comes like a rush of common-sense. It is well researched, and seeks to understand what makes Coca-Cola men tick, while gently mocking their genuflection before the sacred drink. The company may not approve of this 'unauthorized history', but it has no grounds for complaint.

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