You might think that The Coca-Cola Company (TCCC) would embrace this development. After all, Classic sales are down %10 (since 2000) and the TCCC’s share of the industry is at an eight-year low. Consumers are so passionate about "hecho en Mexico" Coke that they are prepared to pay a premium, as much as $.25 a bottle. In an industry that moves heaven and earth to create (or protect) a two-penny margin, this is a staggering development, and very good news. No?
No. TCCC is now condemning Coke importation "as the work of bootleggers." There are lots of technical reasons why TCCC should react this way, some to do with issues of formula, and some to do with the way production and distribution dovetail in the TCCC system. But I can’t help feeling that the hoped-for suppression of Mexican Coke is also driven by a disagreement over what "authenticity" means and a dispute over who owns the brand.
Some consumers now insist that Mexican Coke is a more robust brand than American Coke, not least because it is charged with meanings that American Coke never had, or long ago gave up. In particular, Mexican Coke is charged with a powerful nostalgia, a remembrance of childhood south of the border. (Hey, this is cultural meaning being monetized, and it turns out to be worth around $.25 a bottle!)
Now there was a time when American Coke had a meaning this powerful. I think, for a time, the brand (as crafted by Norman Rockwell, among others) stood for the quintessential small town American experience. This was compelling for native-born Americans who, in the 19th and early 20th centuries, migrated from small towns (and farms around them) into the cities. The Coke message was here what it is in the Mexican case: a "world we have lost" nostalgia.
There was a second group who sought and bought the nostalgia message. Many newly arrived Americans had come in pursuit of the small town dream (even as they were now stuffed into big, Northern cities). Indeed, for many of these people, American was what TCCC creative said it was, and Coke remained their connection to the America they would sometime call their own. (This would make the brand point in the opposite temporal direction, not nostalgic but anticipatory, even as the "quintessential American" meaning remained the same.)
That’s all gone now. The Classic brand has lost its potency. The old meanings have, variously, washed away, decaffinated, and lost their fizz. It would be easy to blame TCCC for this loss of brand value but that would be facile of us. In fact, the Classic brand has been diminished by all of the challenges that face every American brand: the fragmentation of the marketplace and America, the explosion of meaning makers, the crush of small, more potent, brand players, to name a few.
But sometimes the world comes to a brand’s rescue. And it is hard not to think that this is precisely what has happened with Mexican Coke. Here are consumers who have, for their own reasons, found a way to restore the brand to "real thing" status. Hey, presto. The brand rebounds. Or could for at least one segment. And lest we suppose that this is merely a Hispanic play, let us note that many non-Hispanics want access to the authenticity of a Coke from Mexico (for some of the same reasons they embraced Corona as their choice of beer).
But, again, no. TCCC is acting like administrators of the Roman empire who have discovered that they must now contend with a small group of enthusiasts in Gaul who worship Rome and Romanness with new intensity. The Roman decision: put them down! Because the passion of the zealot is dangerous even if it happens, for the moment, to run in your direction. It’s the principle of the thing. "We don’t want your zeal," says the administrator, "we just want your obedience."
Actually, there is a better way of putting this. TCCC is now acting like the Catholic church confronted by a cult of Christians who forsake orthodoxy for their own special brand of religous fervor. "No, no, no," says the Church. It is the Church that decides what devotion means and what belief shall be. It’s Rome that determines the forms and vessels of religious inspiration. The zealots can just cut it out. We decide. Not them.
It is easy to be snide here. And we must remember that TCCC’s problem is the problem of every brand. All of us need to grasp that we are not the arbiters of the brand and that we must defer to to the consumer even when he or she takes leave of our brand orthodoxy and starts making things up. We aren’t Rome any longer, not the empire, not the church. We are shepherds.
The bigger challenge for TCCC: it is to admit that even the magnificent corporation that has created and preserved "real thing" authenticity must now admit to the possibility that there are many authenticities. This is the lesson of plenitude. This is the lesson of the long tail.
Some meanings of the Classic brand are constructed through long standing, patient, and deeply sophisticated acts of meaning management. Some are just conferred upon us. TCCC would do well to act opportunistically and capture the Mexican message. After all, empires are not forever.
McCracken, Grant. 1988. The Evocative Power of Things: consumer goods and the preservation of consumer hopes and ideals. Culture and Consumption I. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Terhune, Chad. 2006. U.S. Thirst for Mexican Cola Poses Sticky Problem for Coke. The Wall Street Journal. January 11, 2005, page A1.