Mark Pendergrast discusses with Rebecca Burns what's changed—and what remains the same—about the hometown giant.
Your updates include a section on the new “cola wars,” in which Coke and Pepsi, rather than battling each other, now jointly battle blame for the U.S. obesity epidemic. Just how culpable are the companies? In a recent ad called “Coming Together,” touting its part in coping with the obesity epidemic, the Coca-Cola Company acknowledges that its sugary beverages are part of the problem but points out, “If you eat and drink more calories than you burn off, you’ll gain weight.” It concludes that “the well-being of our families and communities concerns everyone, and finding a solution will take continued effort from all of us.” The ad points out that a quarter of Coke’s beverages are now low- or no-calorie. That said, sugary soft drinks are indeed a big part of the problem, and Coke and Pepsi advertising continues to suggest that drinking them will make you happy, energetic, and sexy.
So do you drink Coke? There is nothing better after exercise on a hot summer day than a Coca-Cola with crushed ice. Otherwise, I don’t drink many soft drinks. I’m partial to Sprite when offered a choice.
What “halo effect” has the company created in its hometown through its corporate philanthropy and that of its wealthy leadership? It is almost impossible to overestimate the positive impact Coca-Cola money has had on the city of Atlanta, including its contributions to Emory University and other educational institutions, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Atlanta BeltLine, and innumerable other worthy Atlanta causes and organizations.
You document upheaval: three CEOs between 2000 and the present. This is in marked contrast to the long tenures of Robert Woodruff (three decades) and Roberto Goizueta (almost two). Is Coke harder to lead now, and if so, why? All multinational corporations are challenging to lead nowadays, with politics, war, economic upheaval, social issues, and bottom-line issues to deal with. Yet such challenges are not new. Robert Woodruff faced all of them, though perhaps not quite as globally.
Coca-Cola has an advantage over many other products and companies because of the immense brand equity it has developed over the last century-plus, with an amazingly consistent mission, selling beverages that offer a substantial profit margin.
There are reasons Doug Ivester and Doug Daft had problems during the 1997 to 2004 period over which they had no control, yet I think most readers will conclude that the quality of leadership of a CEO—just one person—makes a huge difference. Neville Isdell came into a very troubled company with morale at rock bottom, and he turned it around. And Muhtar Kent is aggressively building on that momentum. He is likely to remain at the helm through 2020 or longer.
Controversial Coca-Cola lore holds the original formula contained cocaine, which you say the book documents “beyond the shadow of a doubt.” What evidence cements this assertion? Many pieces of evidence. Inventor John Pemberton wrote and spoke admiringly about the wonders of the coca leaf and its alkaloid, cocaine. In this new edition, I include a facsimile of a version of the original Coca-Cola formula in Frank Robinson’s handwriting. The formula contains “F.E. Coca”—fluid extract of coca leaf. Asa Candler openly talked about his drink’s cocaine content to a reporter in 1891 and in subsequent courtroom testimony. Coca-Cola is still made using fluid extract of coca leaf, but it has been decocainized since 1903.