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The secret that refreshes

July 09, 2006

AN ADMINISTRATIVE ASSISTANT at Coca-Cola Co. and two accomplices smuggle out a secret formula -- not the secret formula, but close -- and try to sell it to PepsiCo Inc. Pepsi rats them out to Coke. Coke rats them out to the feds. The FBI launches a six-week sting operation.

Coke might be the real thing, but the conspirators turn out to be anything but. According to federal prosecutors, security cameras recorded the administrative assistant stuffing files and a mysterious container of liquid, later identified as a product sample, into her handbag. One accomplice used his home address to open a bank account to receive Pepsi payoffs. Another, posing as a high-level Coke employee named "Dirk," accepted $30,000 in $50 and $100 bills, stuffed in a yellow Girl Scout cookie box, from an undercover agent.

All in all, it was a pathetic display -- and that's a shame. The institution of the Great American Secret deserves better. From the Colonel's 11 secret spices to Scientology's Xenu and Incident II; from Area 51 to a fraternity's initiation rituals; from Google's search algorithm to the location of Vice President Dick Cheney's bunker, we thrive on seeking the tantalizing unknown, the mysterious tidbit of truth that (we think) will show us the way things really are.

Coke has been profiting on this fascination for more than 100 years, ever since the recipe for its beverage -- known as Merchandise 7X -- was locked away in a bank vault in downtown Atlanta. Or so the mythology holds. No matter that as far back as the 1950s, executives at Pepsi boasted that they had decoded 7X.

Copying Coke -- approximating it, at least -- is not that hard. It's tapping into the 7X marketing mystique that's elusive and illegal. William Poundstone, who's written several books on secrets and once published a 7X formula of his own (he believes it calls for caramel, vanilla, citrus oils and various spices), argues that having a secret recipe "like Grandma's" helps corporations forge a bond with consumers.

The folks at Pepsi, who've been winning kudos all around for their role in the bust, understand this well. They know that the public relations value of being a good corporate citizen far outweighs any edge they'd get from looking at their rival's pilfered paperwork. Keeping 7X "secret" helps Coke, helps Pepsi, helps us all.

7X is still in its vault. We still haven't found Jimmy Hoffa. That dog is still the only one who knows what's really in Bush's Baked Beans. As the ads so wisely teach us: Life tastes good.

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