This is a book about the world's best-known brand, and it tells you pretty much what you'd expect to hear - that people drink Coca-Cola not because of the taste, but because it's Coca-Cola. The author, Constance Hays, a journalist at the New York Times, does not spend much time telling us about what's in the bottle, even though the secret formula these days is "little more than a marketing gag". Instead, she tells us about the important stuff - the brand.
People drink Coca-Cola, Hays informs us, because it is, in the words of William Allen White, a former editor of Life magazine, the "sublimated essence of everything America stands for". Americans revere Coke in a way that approaches the fetishistic; it has become an ingredient in the foods and habits they have formed, "wrapping itself into their culture like a powerful enzyme". People have been known to wash their windscreens with Coke, to give it to their pets, to use it as a cooking ingredient (at one point, there was even a dish called "coq au Coke").
There's a lot of detail in this book. Did you know that if you stacked all the bottles of Coke consumed in a year on top of each other, the pile would reach most of the way to Mars? Early fizzy drinks such as Coke were known as "pop" because of the noise the stopper made when you opened the bottle. Hays takes us on a tour of Coke's history, telling us about the men in charge of the brand over the years. Boy, were they ambitious. Coke was created by John Pemberton, a civil war veteran, in the late 19th century. Pemberton's aim was to invent something "that promised relief for the aching hearts and weary bodies all around him". He succeeded - his mixture of elements from the coca plant and the kola nut refreshed people, not least because of the coca, the plant that gives us cocaine.
Perhaps the most important Coke chief was Bob Woodruff who made the drink into a global brand during the Second World War, when he made sure that "every man in uniform gets a bottle of Coca-Cola for five cents wherever he is and whatever it costs". Coke reminded the American troops of home, and was also lodged firmly in the minds of Europeans as the drink of the conquering forces.
In the 1980s, however, a Cuban American called Roberto Goizueta, the new boss of Coke, made a colossal error - "the biggest marketing flop in modern history". By this time, Pepsi, Coke's main rival, was gaining ground. Pepsi executives had dreamed up a marketing tool called the Pepsi Challenge, which encouraged consumers to take blind tests of Pepsi and Coke. Some of them couldn't tell the difference. Goizueta fought back by launching a new brand - "New Coke". This was, he said, "smoother, rounder and bolder". Some people thought it tasted like Pepsi.
New Coke, Hays tells us, was a disaster. Consumers were horrified. They wanted the old Coke back. "Dear Sir," wrote one, "Changing Coke is like God making grass purple or putting toes on our ears or teeth on our knees." Another customer wrote: "The sorrow is knowing not only I won't ever enjoy the Real Coke again, but my children and grandchildren won't either." After 78 days, Goizueta relented. The old Coke went back on the shelves, with a temporary new name - Classic Coke.
What Hays teaches us in this painstakingly researched book is simple. "It wasn't only about the taste," she writes. "It was about heartbreak. It was about the loss of a product that people considered almost a part of them." As a brand, Coke was too strong to break. The failure of New Coke is a distant memory. Perhaps the most telling thing of all is that I can imagine a market for a book of 300-odd pages about the history of Coke. I'm not sure how many people would buy a similar book about the history of Pepsi.