No, it isn’t quite the Real Thing, actually
OF all the symbols of American capitalism, perhaps none is more evocative or pervasive than Coca-Cola. Enjoyed in equal measure by commissars and capitalist running dogs alike, Coke unites the world, if only because no one has invented anything that tastes better.
In recent years, however, reactions against globalisation have seen a worldwide profusion of new soft drinks, many marketed as specifically local and ideologically preferable alternatives to more familiar American giants. Weirdest of all is undoubtedly the one being developed by Hindu fundamentalists in India which, when released at the end of this year, will feature a fragrant mix of fruits, herbs and cow urine.
A refreshing glass of gaujal, or cow water, seems unlikely to pose much of a threat to the Real Thing, but Coke may have to reckon with other, better established and arguably more appealing brands. Take, for instance, the various Islamic colas on offer, including Mecca Cola, Qibla Cola and Iran’s Zamzam, all of which either contribute to, or are owned by, Islamic charities. So popular are they that a few years ago there was even a minor Islamic cola war, spurred by an internet rumour claiming that, when mirrored, the Coca-Cola logo reads in Arabic ‘‘ No Mohammed, no Mecca’’: a ridiculous urban myth, but taken seriously enough for senior muftis in Egypt to form a committee to examine it and, eventually, declare it false.
Despite Egyptian assurances, Coke still has a fraught relationship with the Muslim world, partly because of its perceived sympathies with Israel. During Israel’s Gaza incursion this year, Malaysian fundamentalists called for a Coke boycott and successfully removed it from 2000 shops and restaurants. The company protested that the drink was bottled locally under licence and that the boycott only hurt Malaysian jobs, but its appeals fell on deaf ears.
It is not only in the Islamic world that multinational beverage companies have felt a backlash. Behind the former Iron Curtain, nostalgia for the old regimes has meant a boost for obscure communist-era drinks. Slovenia’s 1950s-era Cockta, for instance, has made a comeback across the former Yugoslavia and Russian Coke sales have suffered in the face of competition from local drinks such as kvas, a mildly alcoholic sour beer made of fermented rye bread. And for those who prefer their refreshments gluten-free and a little more forward looking, there is always Romania’s so-called American Cola, a beverage that describes itself as follows: ‘‘ For free people, who know how to choose in life, for those without limits, American Cola indicates the path to be followed.’’
More successful than all of these, however— indeed, arguably the most successful of all indigenous soft drinks in recent years — is Turkey’s Cola Turka. With the help of a subtly nationalistic, albeit light-hearted, marketing campaign— typified by a television ad in which American comedian Chevy Chase drinks a can before sprouting a moustache and singing Turkish folk songs— Cola Turka has, in a relatively short period, managed to surpass Pepsi to gain the second spot in the Turkish soft drink market, one of the few brands in the world to have managed such a feat.
Cola Turka’s harnessing of Turkish nationalism has been a brilliant study in local marketing, but perhaps the nationalist soft drink with the most potential is China’s Future Cola.
The brainchild of rags-to-riches entrepreneur Zong Qinghou, Future
Islamic fizz: A Mecca Cola ad Cola is now the third most popular cola brand in China. Often referred to as China Cola, Future Cola has built its success on producing a low-cost drink for rural people unable to afford the luxury of real Coke but still yearning for a piece of the consumerist decadence enjoyed by the new bourgeoisie; hipsters in Shanghai wouldn’t be seen dead drinking Future Cola, but in the Chinese heartland it represents an exciting vision of modernity.
This vision is reflected in Future Cola’s marketing campaigns, which rely on strident slogans eerily reminiscent of Cultural Revolution jingoism —‘‘Cola for the Chinese people’’ and ‘‘ Future will be better!’’ — as well as its shameless rip off of the famous Coke packaging, right down to the font and barber-pole colour scheme (Mecca Cola features similar semiotic ambiguity).
Qinghou is keen on sound bites that echo these sentiments. ‘‘ Chinese people are even more fashionable than Westerners,’’ he was quoted as saying to the Chinese press. ‘‘ We love the new and loathe the old.’’
In this way, Future Cola personifies many of the contradictions inherent in nationalist soft drink enterprises; although their marketing is aggressively parochial, they rely for success almost wholly on appealing to the hunger for globalised capitalist glamour epitomised by brands such as Coke. It’s a trend that reinforces and challenges the assumptions of increasing global cultural homogeneity, suggesting that the choice of a new generation may be a great deal less limited than previously assumed.