No, it isn’t quite the Real Thing, ac­tu­ally

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page -

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.

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