Coca-Cola Co. turned 100 in May. As this vividly reported and cautionary tale makes clear, however, there were fewer happy...



Coca-Cola Co. turned 100 in May. As this vividly reported and cautionary tale makes clear, however, there were fewer happy returns than might have been expected. Indeed, the colossus of the soft-drink trade was still suffering aftereffects from last year's decision to change the taste of its flagship brand--in retrospect, a transcendently ill-advised response to the challenge of PepsiCo inc. Oliver, a longtime Coca-Cola watcher (as an Atlanta newspaperman), offers a lively account of the events leading up to and following reformulation--a blunder he likens to Ford's Edsel. Coke and Pepsi, he relates, have attained cultural significance as well as commercial success during the 90-odd years they've been vying for dominance in global consumer markets. But, he points out, the youthful executives who took over early in 1981 either forgot or failed to appreciate Coca-Cola's icon status. Oliver gives the new management team led by Cuban-born. Robert Goizueta good marks for revivifying what had become a complacent, stand-pat enterprise. (He attributes the risky inertia in part to the patriarchal presence of nonagenarian Robert Woodruff, a boardroom force until his recent death.) Stung by Pepsi's hard-hitting taste-test ads and concerned about maintaining market share, Goizueta eventually ordered a change in the legendary Coke formula. The result was a somewhat sweeter beverage with less ""bite,"" designed to appeal to trend-setting baby boomers (aka the Pepsi Generation). While backed by painstaking research, Goizueta's decision (which would have been rational, routine, and almost surely correct for any other consumer-products company) was an unmitigated disaster. Exhaustive surveys provided conclusive proof that cola drinkers preferred the taste of new Coke to that of the old brew; unfortunately, the public hated the idea of anyone's tampering with an American institution. Within months, Goizueta & Co. capitulated, restoring the original to the market (under the Classic banner)--a Solomonic sort of Coke-are-it solution. While the company retains its overall edge, the epic miscalculation allowed Pepsi to claim the top spot in the bellwether sugar-cola category. Wisely, Oliver eschews what-it-all-means analysis, allowing a narrative that's balanced, informative, nicely paced, and good anecdotal fun to speak largely for itself.

Pub Date: Oct. 20, 1986


Page Count: -

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 1986