Bottled Up

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The inside story of Coca-Cola’s India journey lacks total fizz, says Shantanu Guha Ray

Photo: Tarun Sehrawat

ALMOST 15 YEARS ago, the frail figure of Rajinder Dara made news with his bridge games at Delhi’s Chelmsford Club, chain smoking, the bowl of coins he carried in his car for beggars — and his paperback title, The Real Pepsi, The Real Story. Well-researched and documented with loads of internal notes, it was a topical, balanced publication on the roller-coaster ride PepsiCo faced in India because of a licensing policy that opened one door and — simultaneously — closed another.

But irrespective of their business plans that often double up as lessons for B-school graduates, the quirky life of cola giants are also constantly tinged with controversy — perhaps because of their sheer size and clout, or, because of the product they make.

From his modest life in Kolkata, veteran journalist Nantoo Banerjee changed into designer shirts, cuff links and acquired one of Delhi’s top addresses in Anand Niketan when he joined Coca-Cola India. After a few years with Coke, Banerjee moved into virtual obscurity — he called it nirvana — in DehraDun. He’s now resurfaced with his maiden title: The Real Thing.

The Atlanta-based multinational has been back in India for 17 years, and I am reminded of the late Rajan Pillai’s troubled love affair with Coca-Cola, the Plachimada water crisis of 2001 and the pesticide controversy of 2003. One knows it all, so why the run through?

Privy to some internal memos, Banerjee compares the way the multinational handled the Sushmita Sen sexual abuse scandal and her bitter fight with Coke marketing head Shripad Nadkarni with the way NR Narayana Murthy handled the Phaneesh Murthy sexual abuse charge in the US. He prefers Narayanamurthy’s way. He should know better: Sen is an actor who knows how to play the media like a virtuoso.

The Real Thing: Coke’s Bumpy Ride Through India Nantoo Banerjee Publisher: Front page 230 pp; Rs 395
The Real Thing:
Coke’s Bumpy Ride
Through India
Nantoo Banerjee
Publisher: Front page
230 pp; Rs 395

Banerjee also finds fault with Salman Khan because the actor has a penchant for sex, Bacardi, bodybuilding and car accidents — and is a brand ambassador for Thums Up. Well, would you blame Aircel if MS Dhoni messes a run with his Harley Davidson? Worse, as media head, wasn’t it his job to checkmate such crises and develop an integrated media plan? Banerjee doesn’t answer any of that: he has merely sulked after his hasty exit, evident in his grumbling tone throughout the book.

Is there an inside story of Coca-Cola India? If there is one, it is — sadly — missing in this book, pockmarked with editing bloopers. It could be that Banerjee once basked in the glory of his days with Coke and thought his fancy, expense account lunches at five-star hotels and dinners with the CEO made him special. But no one else took any notice because it was his job. It was routine. No one praises a cowboy for carrying a gun. It’s expected.

As a journalist, Banerjee did some good reporting. When he wrote this book however, he seems to have been neither a journalist nor a PR man. If you want to write a kiss and tell story about the world’s number one brand, you need to have a loaded arsenal — reams of facts, lots of anecdotes and good writing skills. Or else, as with this one, people may read it. But no one wants a recap when you have Google to help you.

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