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Inside Coca-Cola: A CEO's Life Story of Building the World's Most Popular Brand Hardcover – Bargain Price, October 25, 2011
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"Inside Coca-Cola is a rich resource for understanding key lessons on managing a global company, people's behavior towards brands, companies' responsibilities towards society and leadership." Hindustan Times
<DIV>"Isdell's debut work is captivating and delightful, sure to simultaneously charm and enlighten about global business and leadership." --Publishers Weekly (starred review)</DIV>
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Apart from that the book is a light read but ultimately disappointing. As someone who spent almost 15 years with Isdell's primary competitor, Pepsi-Cola International, and coincidentally spent a lot of time in the markets Isdell discusses, I know Coke to be a great company and a relentless competitor. I was hoping to gain some insights into the strategies and tactics Coke used to deal with different business challenges. The book offers little in the way of specifics, though, preferring to nestle comfortably in the cushion of trite business blather, typified by this excerpt from Coca-Cola's so-called Manifesto, drafted by 150 Coke executives during a rough stretch of business: "Bring to the world a portfolio of quality beverage brands that anticipate and satisfy people's desires and needs." Oh, so that's the trick!
The subtitle gives it away: "A CEO's Life Story of Building the World's Most Popular Brand." Not surprisingly, then, Isdell focuses on his career path and the people he met along the way. This is disappointing since Isdell led Coke during a time of tremendous change in the world - the fall of the Berlin Wall, the freeing of Nelson Mandela - as well as in the soft drink industry - the decline of returnable bottles, the rise of the "anchor bottler," the growth of juices, teas and waters. These provided unprecedented challenges and opportunities. Although Isdell does relate interesting and even poignant anecdotes, including meeting Mandela and retrieving a piece of the Berlin Wall, the book reads mostly like a travelogue of Isdell's assignments and the people he met and worked with. The business message is mainly "work hard."
From my time at Pepsi I can report that the international soft drink business can be fun but is also challenging and even cut throat. (To his credit, Isdell reports on Coke's numerous scrapes with legal and regulatory authorities.) There are three primary participants in the soft drink industry: the franchise companies, the ones who actually own the brands, such as The Coca-Cola Company and PepsiCo; bottlers - franchisees who license the brands in order to manufacture and distribute the beverages; and "the trade," the retail establishments, ranging from first-world supermarket chains to convenience stores to fast food restaurants to the primitive "shebeens" (pubs) in the townships of South Africa that Isdell mentions.
"The secret," according to Isdell, "...is that everyone along the way, from start to finish, makes a profit." Completely accurate but not always so simple! Just one weak link can damage the profits of the rest of the chain. And there is an ongoing struggle amongst the participants for a bigger slice of the pie.
I was hoping to learn how Coke balanced these interests in different situations. What do they do in markets where they lead versus where they are behind? What do they do in first-world versus third-world markets? How do they decide on the mix of marketing spend on advertising versus distribution?
Apart from a clear preference for consolidating Coke's bottler network, Isdell provides mainly generalities. In Russia, Pepsi lost a 10 to 1 advantage over Coke because "they were sleeping." In the Middle East, however, Isdell "underestimated the strength of the Pepsi system." Well, what was the difference (apart from the fact that they were evidently 'awake')? Isdell could certainly have spiced the book with more detailed case studies without giving away any trade secrets.
Perhaps the best part of the book is the final chapter on "Connected Capitalism." The phrase itself is a little too clever for me - he really means `capitalism." Quibbles aside, Isdell does a nice job capturing a sentiment I also felt while traveling overseas for Pepsi. I was impressed, and so is Isdell, with the desire of ordinary people around the world to use their hard work, skills and creativity to better themselves. He explains how people can be helped in a sustainable fashion only when profits exist which can be used to hire, train, expand and support relevant causes.
Isdell makes the counterintuitive but correct point that a $25 million investment in a bottling plant in Afghanistan is a better use of the funds than had they been spent on a hospital:
"Without jobs, without businesses, how would the hospital be able to sustain itself?...A thriving Coca-Cola bottling plant can help support that hospital through donations and through taxes paid by the company, its employees, and its vendors...Without capitalism the hospital would rely forever on handouts, an unsustainable model."
Well said and while Isdell may not have written a great business book he can be proud of the value he generated, the jobs he created and the consumers he satisfied during a long career with one of the world's great companies.