Who’s Coke Is It, Anyway?

Coke_iiThere’s a great story in the WSJ yesterday about a new conumdrum for the Coca-Cola Company: American consumers are buying Coke made in Mexico. 

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. 

26 thoughts on “Who’s Coke Is It, Anyway?

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  2. Niti Bhan

    Hi Grant,

    Very insightful post – I’m one of those who will go out of her way to track down “hecho in mexico” Coca Cola over the local stuff. It tastes better, it’s less sweet and more fizzy, just like the Coke I grew up with in Malaysia and earlier in India (it was thrown out in 1977 until it’s return in 1995).

    I wonder if it’s less to do with the brand and more to do with flavour and taste?

  3. Mary Schmidt

    Hmmm. thought-provoking post (as usual.) So, is the era of the global conglomerate coming to an end? Or, will they transform into collections of increasingly diverse entities only loosely connected by financial reporting and consolidation? I have neither the brain power nor the crystal ball to predict. However, it does make for interesting times.

    One thing I do believe is for certain – we’re becoming more diverse, not less. Some people used to worry (and still do) that eventually the world would be one big homogenized, thoroughly mediocre society with extremely limited choices and a complete lack of intellectual curiousity. In fact, I see the opposite happening. Look at the incredible range of music available on the Web. Ditto books (and online writing). Food is just as amazing. I can go to a Thai “Mom & Pop” cafe in Albuquerque, be surrounded by Latino families and drink Chinese beer. I can walk to the “big box” supermarket on the corner and buy lemon grass, tamarinds and calamari. Drive a little further and I can visit the Tai-Lin international food mart – buy my Cuban coffee, Italian wine, Japanese fish sauce, and wonder yet again if I’m brave enough to try a durian. I have to think this is good for all of us. As we learn to appreciate each others’ differences in small ways – so we gradually accept the larger ones (religion, politics, social structures).

    Personally, it makes me smile whenever I visit Tai-Lin and see so many “American” brands (for everything from potted meat to ketchup) with labels in everything from Korean to Arabic. Of course, I realize this presents huge problems to companies such as TCCC.

    (Oh, and I much prefer the “old coke” in glass bottles. Ice cold with little crystals. I’ll tolerate the cans, but I really hate the plastic bottles.)

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  6. dilys

    It’s more than the palate. I have a third-hand impression, as well as a perceptible metabolic response, that makes me think high-fructose corn syrup is physically — not just gustatorially — inferior, maybe a different glycemic score. There’s been a good bit of inconclusive discussion about health impact from high-fructose corn syrup vs. cane sugar, e.g. Googled at random here: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/chronicle/archive/2004/02/18/FDGS24VKMH1.DTL

    If this difference exists, and customers can sense it, and Coke USA (having switched to corn syrup in the 80s to cut production costs) comes over all-heavy-handed to limit access to the sugar-sweetened Mexican Coke, the ethical ramifications deepen IMO from simple reflex brand-control-freak psychology, almost taking on a certain tobacco-flavored aroma.

  7. steve

    The sugar difference really is the primary issue here (also some do prefer the glass bottles). But it’s a bit silly to accuse Coke of some nefarious intent in using high-fructose corn syrup when the soft-drink makers are the victims of protectionism.

    Foreign produced cane sugar is cheaper than HFCS which in turn is cheaper than domestic sugar. Domestic sugar farmers and HFCS producers such as Archer-Daniels-Midland (a politically potent donor to politicians of both parties) have lobbied effectively to keep out cheap raw sugar from abroad. Some candy companies have actually moved manufacturing facilities outside the US, because the tariffs on candy are sometimes less costly than the effects of the sugar quota restrictions. I’m sure if they could, Coke would happily use cheap imported cane sugar.

  8. Matt

    Others are right. The consumers’ preference for Mexican Coke is not about brand image but about the fact that Coke made with sugar tastes much better than Coke made with HFCS. The blame (to the extent that it’s sane to attach the word “blame” to such a properly values-neutral decision as the choice to prefer getting one’s pop from Mexican bottling plants) belongs to the US Congress.

    On the other hand, it _is_ worth looking into the question of why TCCC’s executives in the US have a problem with this. Are they getting paid less money? Don’t the bottles have the Coca-Cola label on them? In what way does reimportation of Coke bottled in places where government hasn’t stepped in to enrich a few conglomerates at the expense of consumers cause harm to TCCC’s business or brand image?

    Indeed, I’d think that the present facts would be encouraging. People COULD, after all, be switching to small-name beverages still made with real sugar even here in the US…but instead they’re so intensely loyal to Coca-Cola that they’ll pay a price premium sufficient to motivate the reimportation of proper Coke from across the border.

  9. Acad ronin

    I’m with the taste people above. A decade ago, my late brother swore that Mexican Coca Cola tasted better, and he would buy some whenever he could. (I couldn’t tell the difference but then I don’t drink much of the stuff and never conducted a blind taste test.) Still, as we are both Anglo it was not a brand thing.

    If I recall correctly, the protection of domestic sugar does not come down to major corporations but rather to Idaho sugar beet farmers, and more importantly, one family in particular, the Fanjul family in Florida, and their admittedly very large company, Flo-Sun of Palm Beach. In their political contributions the Fanjuls appear to be bi-partisan contributors.

    Googling “Fanjul florida sugar” will provide 800 hits to stories.

  10. Jack Yan

    How sad. It’s a missed opportunity for Coca-Cola to cement ideas of a global society and the ideas of freedom that came from its consumption by GIs during World War II. Coke was it.

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  13. Matt

    If you’re big enough to own, body and soul, more than one member of the US Congress, you lose the right to play the “we’re not major corporations, we’re just _farmers_” card.

  14. Sam Ford

    I agree that it’s quite a shame that Coca-Cola passed up on an opportunity like this. I went to Mexico on vacation during spring break of my junior year in high school, and I was amazed by the degree to which drinking Coke–usually from the bottle–was a part of the culture, especially in the smaller towns outside of the tourist attractions that we went to. When a Hispanic grocery store came into my small town, they imported Coke from Mexico, and I always went there to drink it as well. I think it does have something to do with sugar being a more satisfying sweetener than high fructose corn syrup. Someone should tell Congress that free trade creates not only wealth but also better tasting cola, and someone should tell Coke that they should be happy that people are that dedicated to the Coke product. Maybe they should start selling the sugarized Mexican Coke formula in certain places with a higher sticker price…

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  17. Renee Hopkins Callahan

    Here’s a similar case, but handled in a much more positive way: Here in Texas we have Dublin Dr Pepper, bottled in Dublin, Texas (about 90 miles southwest of Fort Worth), using cane sugar instead of HFCS (they just never switched). Dublin Dr Pepper can be found throughout Texas for a premium price. From the Oct. 20, 2005 Fort Worth Star-Telegram: “Not only is the Dublin bottling company the smallest of Dr Pepper’s bottlers, churning out 250,000 cases a year, it has a distribution range of only about 40 miles. That means Fort Worth-area residents are normally in for a road trip if they want to get the drink.

    “Our limitation is our area — literally, you have to come and get it,” said Jeff Pendleton, creative manager at the bottling company. Even those who make the trip face another limitation: a 20-case purchase maximum.

    The bottles of Dublin Dr Pepper arrive in Fort Worth through a grass-roots distribution system of entrepreneurs. The company is not affiliated with the network but cheerfully acknowledges it, even offering T-shirts recognizing the “bootlegger” enterprise at its gift shop.”

  18. Katherine Stone

    Having spent 7 years in corporate marketing at Coke, this whole thing makes me sad. What’s makes Coca-Cola authentic anyway? TCCC is responsible for splintering its authenticity into a million pieces in the first place. The formula has been changed, the packaging and how it is consumed have changed, the marketing has changed, the prices have changed. There isn’t a singular “authentic” Coke in the system, considering the system itself produces it several different ways. The only thing that makes a Coke authentic at this point is that it was made by TCCC and its assigns, and that it features Coca-Cola branding. We should be celebrating anyone who loves Coca-Cola and strives to get it the way they want it. Here they go again siding with money over magic.

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  22. Mike

    Lmao theres a bottle of mexican coke right next to my keyboard. Im in michigan, and every gas station and party store have so much of this. I love it

  23. Mike

    Lmao theres a bottle of mexican coke right next to my keyboard. Im in michigan, and every gas station and party store have so much of this. I love it

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