Its product debut in Atlanta occurred the same year as the Statue of Liberty was erected in New York City. The Coca-Cola Company (2011) avers its achievement of material culture: “It was 1886, and in New York Harbor, workers were constructing the Statue of Liberty. Eight hundred miles away, another great American symbol was about to be unveiled.” The first Coca-Cola sold for 5 cents per glass at the Jacobs’ Pharmacy soda fountain: the primary means by which consumers encountered the soft drink during its early existence and years before it became the cultural icon that is not ironically compared with the Statue of Liberty. The original inventor of Coca-Cola has been nearly forgotten in the annals of cultural history. John Pemberton’s name is not the household word, but the product he created has since taken on a life of its own. Coca-Cola has yielded books entitled, For God, Country, and Coca-Cola. The product represents the core issues at stake in semiotics, material culture, branding, and the fusion of consumer culture with cultural identity.
Named because of its original “cocaine kick,” Coca-Cola has always been marketed as an energy drink (Pendergrast, 2000). It may be no coincidence that the Coca-Cola Company chooses to compare its flagship product with the Statue of Liberty, which bears a plaque that begins with the phrase, “Give me your tired” Even when the coca was taken out of Coca-Cola, the high caffeine and sugar contents of the beverage have wooed potential addicts for decades. Yet as Eakin (2002) points out, Coca-Cola has transcended its original image of being a refreshing energy drink towards being a global icon: one that can be practically distanced from the beverage itself. A thorough analysis of the evolution of Coca-Cola branding and marketing substantiates Manning’s (2010) clumsy but poignant analysis of brand discourse: “Brand discourse defines brand in opposition to the material properties of the product, leading to a dematerialization of brand, which erases the messy materialities, contingencies, and hybrids that continually arise in the material semiosis of brand,” (p. 33). The branding of Coca-Cola stands perhaps not in opposition to the material properties of the product, but Coke’s branding has indeed led to a “dematerialization” of the actual beverage. Coca-Cola is used in the same sentence as the Statue of Liberty on the Coca-Cola Company’s own Website. Unabashed association between its product and the core cultural value of liberty proves that Coca-Cola has become bigger than a soft drink ever could be.
The association between Coca-Cola is laden with multiple layers of irony, not least of which is the fact that the Statue of Liberty was not made in the United States. Yet it does not matter; Coca-Cola is not even an American product anymore. Coca-Cola has gone viral, universal, global. As Buchli (2002) points out, Coca-Cola is taken for granted in the United States. Abroad, Coca-Cola has been connected with — but antagonistic to– movements associated with anti-colonialism, anti-imperialism, and anti-capitalism. Coca-Cola has been ironically embraced by consumers in countries that were actively engaged in ousting British and other colonial entities and all they represent. For example, Coca-Cola was warmly welcomed in Trinidad, where its “only rival might be the beer Carib,” (Buchli, 2002, p. 248). Trinidad then went on to place its own stamp on Coca-Cola: the . The ensuing popularity of the ubiquitous mixed drink highlights the ways Coca-Cola has gone beyond even being an American product. Trinidad thereby transformed the semiotics of an American product, as many other cultures have since done too.
Coca-Cola has not always been so warmly welcome outside of the United States. Yet even when it has been demonized, the power of Coca-Cola to transcend being just a beverage is immediately apparent. For example, Indian protectionism kept out multi-national brands like Coca-Cola for years. The breakdown of Indian protectionist policies led to the immediate establishment of a Coca-Cola manufacturing and bottling plant in the subcontinent. Coca-Cola’s presence in India raised a host of ethical questions. Ghosh (2010) points out the political backlash against Coca-Cola in India due to the company’s water use. One village in South India used semiotics against the American giant; the villagers engaged in “expressive play with symbols” by performing “daily rituals around the Coca-Cola logo that drew attention to the company’s being complicit in perpetuating water scarcity (Ghosh, 2010, p. 333). As Vedwan (2008) puts it, “Coca-Cola and Pepsi as brands are hybrid embodiments of the larger dissonances constitutive of the present moment in Indian modernity,” (p. 659). and its branding does not even need to mention its being an American product. Coca-Cola represents globalization discourse and all its contingencies including issues related to social and environmental justice.
One of the ironies of Coca-Cola, in addition to its being simultaneously American and global, is its association with two distinct promises: the promise of more energy; and the promise of relaxation. Pendergrast (2000) notes that Coca-Cola was originally marketed as many snake oils of the day: as a “nerve tonic,” (p. 9). The product was “marketed to capitalize on the dislocations and worries of the day,” (Pendergrast, 2000, p. 9). Zaltman (1997) points out the divergent associations that any one product can have, somehow working to the advantage of marketing. Coca-Cola is believed to be an energy booster due to its caffeine and sugar content, but when consumer groups have been asked to provide free associations for the product, imagery that is associated with “calm, solitude, and relaxation” are provided too (Zaltman, cited by Eakin, 2002, p. 2). Coca-Cola is like “two drinks in one,” (Zaltman, cited by Eakin, 2002, p. 2). Therefore, Coca-Cola reveals the two distinct trends in the creation of semiotics: what the deliberate branding of the product creates and what consumers then start projecting onto the product themselves. Semiotics is, essentially, self-reflexive.
The self-reflexive nature of semiotics fits seamlessly with the new media trends of marketing strategy. Consumers create buzz and branding is spread like a virus rather than transmitted paternally from the company itself. There is a core identity associated with the choice of drinking Coca-Cola. What that identity is might differ depending on the consumer demographic. It matters little what the identity is, because Coca-Cola has transcended itself as a beverage and is now a product associated with ideas as grand as liberty.
Competitors’ products, like Pepsi, have not gained the traction that Coca-Cola has. Pepsi is an alternative to Coke, but cannot be dissociated from Coke. Coke has done all the branding necessary for the concept of “cola” as the liberty-loving beverage. Interestingly, Pepsi has established itself as a political alternative to Coca-Cola in countries where the latter might be perceived as an American evil. For example, both Russia and Venezuela had greater Pepsi presence than Coke (Pendergrast, 2000). In spite of possible differences to formula, both Pepsi and Coke are brands that are divergent from their actual product. It would not matter if Coca-Cola or Pepsi were made with Marmite, passion fruit, or durian. The fact remains that branding has created an aspect of material culture that has a tremendous impact on people who do not even purchase the product.
On advertising, Cason (2009) notes, “advertisements often serve as material culture artifacts that provide evidence of the time period when they were created.” Tracing the ways Coca-Cola has changed its advertising campaigns reveals the transformation in semiotics within one particular brand. Current brand iconography like the polar bears show that the beverage company is conveying core concepts like refreshment. Beneath the “refreshing” connotation of icy cold imagery, the Coca-Cola company also sends signals related to polar bears but not cola. For example, polar bears are rare. Coca-Cola is not. The paradox stimulates interest in a brand that might otherwise be marketed to an inured general public tired of buying the same things over and over. When the Coca-Cola Company decides to develop new products based squarely on the identity of Coca-Cola, it does so to generate consumer interest. For example, Coke Zero will never outsell the flagship beverage but its presence signals something that is “fresh.” The polar bears are not just “rare” and “fresh,” they are also fierce and carnivorous: also concepts that are associated with Coca-Cola.
Consumers actively avoiding Coca-Cola due to issues of health, social justice, or those choices with full awareness of the semiotics of the brand. Coca-Cola is indeed everything the Statue of Liberty represents. The brand embraces the masses of the world. “I’d like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony,” was the tagline of Coca-Cola’s successful marketing campaign during the 1970s. “I’d like to buy the world a Coke” is a commercial jingle that became a hit single: proving the odd relationship between consumer culture and less overtly materialistic aspects of cultural expression like the creative arts. Other products come close, but really, Coke is it.
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