Doing Corporate Cultural Studies
Corporate history is proprietary history. With company records owned and guarded by corporations, if archived at all, researchers and the broader public alike lack access to crucial historical documents. In addition, the same corporate organization that structures The Coca-Cola Company (the system of subsidiaries and franchises, mergers and acquisitions, and restructuring, etc.) also structures the versions of history available. For example, the multiple corporate entities involved in this study claimed varied degrees of ownership or distance from the historical record following a complex line of mergers and buyouts. Corporations have brands and investors to protect, and they value a profitable future more highly than a clear historical past, especially when the details of the latter have the potential to affect the economics of the former. The Mexico-based Latin American mega-bottler Coca-Cola FEMSA, which by the beginning of the millennium owned all but a few of Colombia’s Coca-Cola bottling plants, protected its reputation by not delving into the history of previous plant owners, as was made clear in my correspondence with its representatives and lawyers.[ii] Thus the bottling company refuses access to proprietary history by defining that history as not “its own,” a stance only possible because of its very ownership thereof.
It is easier to write the history of The Coca-Cola Company than many other multinationals, I suspect, because of the type of corporation it is. The Company and its executives have had a strong sense of their own importance, archiving their business, advertising, and personal papers in multiple locations, which are more publicly accessible than many corporate historical records. I am also indebted to the invaluable published studies of the Company by Mark Pendergrast, Bartow Elmore, Robert Foster, Frederick Allen, Constance Hays, and Michael Blanding, some of whom have also made their research materials available for future study in archives of primary documents.[iii] Because the Company is so visible in its size, consumer products, marketing, and public stock, its activities have received more attention than other more nebulous, inconspicuous, or even covert corporate forms. But, for the same reason, because of the value of the Company’s brand, it is extremely protective of its history and resistant to research on its actions. And the critical popular, political, and legal attention that activists have brought to bear on the Company in both Colombia and India has exacerbated the corporation’s defensiveness. As part of the Company’s recent focus on corporate social responsibility, executives in charge of environmental, labor, and health policy and public relations have engaged with some researchers and activists, but in a highly instrumental fashion, limiting their discussions to current or future projects rather than dwelling on history.
I have thus constructed this cultural history of The Coca-Cola Company and its struggles from diverse sources—archival executive correspondence and notes, company publications, newspaper reports, interviews with workers, community members, executives and activists, and corporate, popular, and protest texts. Even with unrestricted access to proprietary corporate records, the diverse sources examined in this study must be considered essential documents of the Coca-Cola world system. Indeed, even as multinationals like Coca-Cola help constitute modern global life, few people read their official memos or see into their boardrooms. As such, “unofficial” sources reveal the history of the lived experiences and meaning of the Company, from the floors of bottling plants to kitchen tables to the front lines of activists’ mobilizations.
[i] Including Walter LaFeber, Michael Jordan and the New Global Capitalism (New York, NY: Norton, 1999), Alfred D. Chandler and Bruce Mazlich, eds., Leviathans: Multinational Corporations and the New Global History (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2005), Joel Bakan, The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power (New York, NY: Free Press, 2005), John Micklethwait and Adrian Woolridge, The Company, A Short History of a Revolutionary Idea (New York, NY: Modern Library, 2003), Nelson Lichtenstein, The Retail Revolution: How Wal-Mart Created a Brave New World of Business (New York: Picador, 2009), Steve Striffler, In the Shadows of State and Capital: The United Fruit Company, Popular Struggle and Agrarian Restructuring in Ecuador, 1900-1995 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2001), Bethany Moreton, To Serve God and Wal-Mart: The Making of Christian Free Enterprise (Cambridge, MA: Harvard, 2010).
[ii] Felipe Márquez Robledo, Gerente Legal Colombia, Coca-Cola FEMSA, email with author, November 8, 2006.
[iii] Mark Pendergrast notably left his research to Emory University, which also holds the papers of several Coca-Cola executives. In addition to historian Bartow Elmore and anthropologists Robert Foster and Lesley Gill mentioned above, this study benefited greatly from the work of several journalists: Frederick Allen, Secret Formula: The Inside Story of How Coca-Cola Became the Best-Known Brand in the World (New York: Collins Business, 1994), Mark Pendergrast, For God, Country, and Coca-Cola: The Definitive History of the Great American Soft Drink and the Company That Makes It (New York: Basic Books, 2000), Constance Hays, The Real Thing: Truth and Power at The Coca-Cola Company (New York: Random House, 2005), and Michael Blanding, The Coke Machine: The Dirty Truth Behind the World’s Favorite Soft Drink (New York: Avery, 2010).