What is wrong with Coca-Cola? Not the drink — the company.

There’s nothing wrong with the drink now that wasn’t also wrong with it in the 1920s (“The Pause That Refreshes”), 1960s (“Things Go Better…”), 1970s (“The Real Thing”), 1980s (“Coke Is It”) or 1990s (“Always”).

But Coca-Cola Australia’s corporate PR and advertising in the last two weeks suggests there’s something seriously amiss in Coke’s management.

Non-believers have apparently taken the reins and are clearly about to fashion a new slogan for the iconic soft drink — something catchy that includes words like “moderation”, “responsibility”, “community” and “doing the right thing”.

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Following the bizarre Kerry Armstrong “myth busting” advertorial in the Good Weekend of 11 October (Crikey, 16 October, “Busting Kerry Armstrong’s Coca-Cola myths“), last Saturday’s papers carried another large and serious message from Coca-Cola.

“Believe it or not, we really do want to do the right thing,” wrote Gareth Edgecombe, Managing Director of Coca-Cola South Pacific, in an “open letter” format ad addressed “To all our customers”. Written in a “hurt” tone of voice, the letter consisted of a rambling series of defensively-worded statements about the lack of harmful health effect of Coke and the need for moderation. But it lacked any clear argument structure and ended with whimper — a request for feedback and a “thank you for your support”.

Of course, there’s nothing new in any of this.

“Ever since Pemberton invented Coca-Cola, people have attached it because of its purportedly bad health effects,” writes Mark Prendergast in his entertaining unauthorised 1993 history of the drink and the company, For God, Country and Coca-Cola.

Prendergast says that in the 1970s and early 1980s, Coca-Cola executives — led by then company President Roberto Goizueta — would defiantly joke about what they called “the cynical elite” who they claimed attacked Coke because “nothing so available, so inexpensive, so much enjoyed by so many… can be good for you”.

But carrying on this way doesn’t only make Coke look silly, wussy or “thin-skinned”, as showbiz reporter Peter Ford described the company on 3AW this morning. It puts the entire history of the brand at risk.

Coke became the powerhouse brand it is in spite of the rumours and myths — and perhaps even partly because of them.

In the late 1960s, when Coke won back the hearts of young Americans — and, consequently, young consumers all around the world — it did so by linking its brand to a powerful social revolution at the height of the Vietnam era: as the jingle that became a hit song said, Coke “(taught) the world to sing in peace and harmony”.

But as Oxford University Marketing professor Douglas B. Holt writes in his book How Brands Become Icons, in recent years “the company (is) misread(ing) the value of the Coke brand” and “has failed to engage social issues that are on the minds of the brand’s customers”.

Compared to the opportunities that might come from linking its brand to, say, “green” causes or global social networking — as many previously more conservative brands are doing — Coke’s “myth busting” campaign to “…help you understand the truth about Coca-Cola” is entirely inward-looking and self-interested. Indeed, as numerous Crikey readers pointed out last week, the Coca-Cola Company appears to have been liberal with the truth in attempting to protect its reputation.

In the Armstrong advertorial, the statement “Coca-Cola contained cocaine once upon a time” is clearly labelled in a headline as “Myth”. Yet countless sources confirm that Coke did contain cocaine in the 19th century and until the early 1900s. Prendergast’s comprehensive work points out that coca leaves were an ingredient of Coca-Cola’s recipe, and the company’s owner and president Asa Candler admitted in court in 1901 that it contained cocaine. After removing cocaine from the recipe from 1902 or 1903 onwards, Candler “orchestrated a mighty revision of Coca-Cola history” and in later years “
“repeatedly denied… that the drink had ever had cocaine in it”, writes Prendergast.

The text of the advertorial very carefully and pointedly says that “Cocaine has never been an added ingredient (my emphasis) in the secret recipe of ‘Coca-Cola….”, which is arguably correct. Yet the headline is unambiguous — and clearly incorrect, according to multiple non-company sources.

Gareth Edgecombe writes of Coca-Cola’s “responsibility” and “commitment” to the community. But this apparently deliberate “spin” and the desperate tone of Coke’s current campaign suggests that those now steering this mighty juggernaut lack pride and commitment in their own brand and its heritage.

If their hands are shaky at the wheel, they probably need a Coke.

Dr Stephen Downes lectures in the postgraduate advertising program at RMIT University and is a market researcher with QBrand Consulting.