Mark was born and raised in Atlanta, Georgia. He earned a B.A. in English literature from Harvard, taught high school and elementary school, then went back to Simmons College for a masters in library science and worked as an academic librarian—all the while writing freelance articles for newspapers and magazines. In 1991, he began writing books full time, which allows him to follow his rather eclectic interests.
His books have been published 15 languages. For God, Country & Coca-Cola was named a notable book of the year by the New York Times, and Discover Magazine chose Mirror Mirror as one of the top science books of the year.
Mark has given speeches to professional groups, business associations, and college audiences in the United States, Canada, the U.K., and Germany. He has appeared on dozens of television shows, including the Today Show, CBS This Morning, and CNN, and has been interviewed on over 100 radio programs, including All Things Considered, Marketplace, and many other public radio shows. He lives in Colchester, Vermont.
Mark will be talking with us today about his book on Coca-Cola.
Good day, Mark, and thanks for participating in our interview.
How did you decide you were ready to write For God, Country & Coca-Cola and what would you say is the best reason to recommend someone to read the book?
I've just come out
with the third edition of For God, Country & Coca-Cola, so let me
explain why I wrote it in the first place and why I needed to update
I grew up in Atlanta, Georgia, where Coca-Cola was invented in 1886, and where the corporate headquarters remain. I've got a number of family connections to the Company. For instance, my grandfather, J. B. Pendergrast, was an Atlanta pharmacist who served Coca-Cola at his soda fountain, and he testified in a 1914 lawsuit about the nicknames people used to ask for the drink, including Coke, Dope, and A Shot-in-the-Arm, all referring to the original cocaine content in the drink, even though the cocaine was removed in 1903.
I was intrigued by the
fact that Coca-Cola is the world's most widely distributed single
product and the second best-known word on earth, after "Okay."
And yet it is really just 99% sugarwater (with some interesting
ingredients in that other 1%).
How did this non-essential drink come to be so heavy with power and symbolism? How did it come to represent the American way of life? How did it spread around the world? The answers turned out to be fascinating, involving marketing, economics, management, psychology, globalization, human rights, the environment, international politics, race -- you name it, it's in this book.
The first edition was published in 1993, when Roberto Goizueta, a Cuban-American, was the CEO, and when the Company was doing very well indeed. When the second edition came out in 2000, Goizueta had died of lung cancer and his successor, Doug Ivester, had presided over three troubled years during which the stock declined and sugary soda sales went flat and began to slide. A Belgian health scare caused a major, expensive recall. Ivester was forced out just as I finished revising the second edition.
Ivester was replaced by Doug Daft, an Australian Coke veteran who was unprepared to run the Company in such difficult circumstances. Coke and other sodas were being blamed for the obesity epidemic and criticized for exclusive deals with schools. A racial discrimination lawsuit was underway, along with probes by the European Union, the FBI, and the SEC. Daft fired thousands of people, one of whom turned into a whistleblower.
Daft was forced out in 2004, and after an embarrassingly public search for an outside CEO, they hired Neville Isdell, an Irish native who had worked for Coke his whole career and was brought out of retirement. Isdell turned the Company around, settled lawsuits, improved advertising, came out with Coke Zero, and began to address other problems. He retired again in 2009, and current CEO Muhtar Kent, a Turkish-American, has continued to innovate and improve the bottom line while also addressing the obesity issue and further diversifying the beverage line to about 3,500 drinks worldwide, with a quarter of them low-cal or no-calories. So it was obviously time for a new edition, which came out in 2013.
What was the most difficult part of writing the book and did you learn anything from writing your book?
Ha! I think it's pretty obvious that I learned an amazing amount from writing the book. The history of Coca-Cola is really the history of modern America, especially in terms of advertising and business practices. But as I pointed out, that history involves so much more, including wars, politics, public health, regulation, drug policy, etc.
The most difficult part of writing the book was figuring out what to leave out. That's funny, because many of my friends asked me, "Can you really write a whole book about a silly soft drink?" It turned out to be a huge, complex undertaking, and the result is a 500-plus page book.
Where did you get your information for the book and how long did it take you to write the book?
The first edition of the book took about three years to research and write. I did a great deal of research for it, in archives, reading, and through interviews and travel.
Why did you title your book For God, Country & Coca-Cola?
The title is obviously a bit tongue-in-cheek, but it's also true in many ways. Coca-Cola was almost a religion for Asa Candler, who made it a national soda fountain drink after inventor John Pemberton died in 1888, just two years after inventing the drink. He called it a "boon to humanity" and led the singing of "Onward Christian Soldiers" at his sales meetings. When the drink came under attack for its caffeine and cocaine content, his men felt like early persecuted Christian missionaries. By World War II, however, the drink had come to symbolize a patriotic American way of life.
What did you enjoy most about writing this book?
I enjoyed almost everything about writing it. For one thing, I got to spend a lot of time with my parents and other family members in Atlanta. I even dragooned them into helping with archival research at Emory University and the National Archives. And I got to meet and interview a fascinating array of people.
Could you tell our audience something about how Coca-Cola was originally marketed and sold and what connection did it have to cocaine?
John Pemberton invented Coca-Cola as both a soda fountain drink and a medicine, a "nerve tonic" that cured headaches, hangovers, impotence, and the mythical disease of neurasthenia (depletion of nervous energy). The original drink was named after its two primary drug constituents -- cocaine, from fluid extract of coca leaves, and caffeine, from kola nuts. I have two versions of the original formula in the appendix to the book, which includes various essential oils (coriander, cinnamon, orange, nutmeg, neroli) as well as lime and vanilla.
The drink was sold only in soda fountains until 1899, when two Chattanooga lawyers got Asa Candler to give them the bottling rights -- for free and in perpetuity, surely one of the smartest and stupidest contracts ever written. That led to the incredibly successful spread of Coca-Cola bottling franchises and a number of internecine conflicts and lawsuits.
From reading your book I noticed that Coca-Cola has been embroiled in many lawsuits. Perhaps you can give us a very brief outline of some of the more important ones and why were they important?
There have been so
many lawsuits! They were really useful for me, because it was like
interviewing the long-deceased Asa Candler and others, as I read the
trial transcripts. That's where I found my grandfather testifying in
the 1914 trial, in which The Coca-Cola Company successfully sued Koke
Company for producing an imitation.
Probably the most important
lawsuit took place in 1911, when the U. S. government sued Coca-Cola
as a misbranded product (because it no longer had cocaine in it) and
a product with an added deleterious product (caffeine) that was
marketed to children.
Coke won the original lawsuit but lost on appeal and eventually settled out of court by reducing the caffeine content, and deciding never again to show children under 12 drinking the product in advertisements.
If you were to name one person who had the most influence on the success of Coca-Cola, who would that be and why?
That's a really hard question, but I would have to say Robert Woodruff, who took over as president in 1923 and ruled on every major decision until his death in 1985 at the age of 95. Woodruff was a brilliant manager, even though he probably suffered from dyslexia. He was known as "Boss" and was much feared but revered. It was Woodruff who insisted that advertising should be positive and wholesome and that Coca-Cola distribution should be ubiquitous around the globe, "within an arm's reach of desire."
How has Coca-Cola's recipe changed over the years? As a follow up, I understand you have knowledge of the original recipe. Could you elaborate?
I've already talked a bit about the original recipe, but I didn't mention that it was actually a modification of French Wine Coca, a drink Pemberton had come out with in 1884, in imitation of a wildly popular drink called Vin Mariani, made in Paris and New York City, which was a red wine infused with coca leaf. It was only when Atlanta voted to "go dry" that Pemberton modified French Wine Coca to produce Coca-Cola.
When Asa Candler took over
in 1888, he apparently tinkered with the recipe in some ways. Then
in 1903 the cocaine was removed, though it still uses decocainized
coca leaf. Then the caffeine was cut in half after the 1911 lawsuit.
At some point citric acid was replaced by phosphoric acid.
In the 1980s, in the United States, cane sugar was replaced by high fructose corn syrup. For a painful three months in 1985, "New Coke" replaced the old formula. It was more similar to Pepsi and had no coca leaf content, but after a public furor, the old formula was brought back. The caramel coloring was made chemically until recent evidence that it caused cancer in mice, so now it's made by a natural process again. Regular Coca-Cola is, in fact, not "filled with chemicals" as many people think, but is an all-natural product, though a 12 ounce can contains the equivalent of 9 teaspoons of sugar.
Where can our readers find out more about you and your books?
Go to my WEBSITE. You can also write to me directly from the website.
As this interview draws to a close what one question would you have liked me to ask you? Please share your answer.
Many people wonder whether I am "pro" or "anti" Coca-Cola. I am neither. I have a good deal of affection for the product and occasionally drink it when I'm really hot and sweaty. Otherwise, I advise drinking all soft drinks in moderation. Like any other major corporation, Coca-Cola needs to be monitored and held accountable, and I think my book will help to do that.
Thanks once again and good luck with all of your future endeavors