Coca-Cola Company

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How has the history of the Coca-Cola Company reflect previous trends in global trade from the 1940s through today? How do they depart from them? 

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The Coca-Cola Company’s history is a symbol both of success and of cultural imperialism, the latter not intended as a negative indictment but rather as an acknowledgement of its emergence as a reflection of America’s growth as a world power.  Invented in 1886 by John Pemberton, Coca-Cola’s history is a microcosm of the broader transformations that occurred globally following the world wars.  America’s position in the world had been limited by its reluctance to become overly-engaged in foreign affairs.  The end of World War II saw the vastly diminished roles of the old global powers like Britain and France and the rise in their place of the United States and the Soviet Union.  Culturally-insulated countries like France and former imperial giants like France, Britain, Spain and Portugal all witnessed the decline of their international influence, to be replaced by the young upstart with atomic weapons, the United States. 

With World War II’s end, the emergence of the United States as a global power, and an agreement among western democracies to maintain open diplomatic and commercial lines set the stage for the spread of American cultural and commercial influences, often to the detriment of Europeans anxious to protect their badly-destroyed economies and, as importantly, their cultures.  Historian Tony Judt described the situation best in his book Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945:

“ . . . an insidious American artifact was spreading across the continent.  Between 1947 and 1949 the Coca-Cola Company opened bottling plants in the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, Switzerland, and Italy. . .But while some voices had been raised in protest in Belgium and Italy, it was in France that Coca-Cola’s plans unleashed a public storm.”

What Judt notes was referred to as “Coca-Colonisation” revealed a very deep-seated resentment among Europeans to this crass intrusion of an inferior American culture.  Coca-Cola became, more than any other American product, synonymous with American cultural imperialism and economic dominance.  Its greatest strength, its marketing and trademarked logo, became symbols of America’s superpower status and of Europe’s relative decline.  France, in particular, is protective of its culture to the point that its government stepped in to block the acquisition of the Dannon Yogurt Company by an American company during the 2000s by Coca-Cola’s main competitor, PepsiCo, viewing Dannon (actually, Danone in France) as a cultural institution – ironic given Japanese complaints that the United States has tried to limit its yogurt giant, Chobani, from increasing its access to the American market.

Coca-Cola’s history can be considered a reflection of broader trends in international trade, both in terms of its success as a multinational corporation with world-wide name recognition, and as a symbol of cultural imperialism and global dominance.  As relations between post-revolutionary Iran and the United States deteriorated, and especially during particularly turbulent periods in the Middle East, opposition to U.S. foreign policy frequently manifests itself in attacks on symbols of American culture and global presence.  At the top of that list sits Coca-Cola.  That is why the Iranian government has sought to replace Coca-Cola in the Islamic world with its own version (originally owned by PepsiCo but nationalized after the 1979 revolution), Zam Zam Cola. 

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