Discover more from Snack Stack
Why is RC Cola popular in Tajikistan?
In search of an American soda in far-flung places
Hello, Snackers. I’d like to buy the world a … soda that’s largely forgotten in its homeland but keeps hanging around in a few other parts of the planet.
Recommendation: Go listen to me on the podcast The Sporkful! I had a fun, wide-ranging conversation with host Dan Pashman and Atlantic writer Amanda Mull on subjects including the bizarre Bass Pro Shop pyramid in Memphis, Van Halen’s brown M&M test, and much more.
You know what’s fun? Visiting a new place and getting slightly—just a bit—confused by it. There are few things I adore more than just walking around a city or neighborhood I’ve never seen before, seeing what it’s like, and silently repeating to myself, “Huh, I wonder what the story is with that!”
The way I explore the world has changed in the last few years. With the major exception of a summer trip to Japan, I haven’t traveled much, and I’ve essentially gotten out of the travel writing biz after more than 15 years. (There are various reasons for this exit, including family, pandemic, day job, and, uh, general disillusionment with the industry. Here’s a long essay I wrote about all that, and more, for Lit Hub.) But my underlying curiosity about the world remains as strong as ever, and when I see a place mentioned in the news or a book or a random Instagram feed, I’ll often start wondering what it’s like there, and head off to take a look at it via Google Maps and Street View.
Those journeys typically last just a few minutes, but sometimes they send me down a rabbit hole that takes over a significant portion of my brain for hours or a week.
Every now and then, my curiosity holds even longer.
For more than a year, I’ve been thinking about this photo of Dushanbe, Tajikistan.
It doesn’t look like much. If you’re scratching your head, I get it. But, as always, if you zoom in on a single tiny detail of a place, you’ll find an intriguing story to tell. For you, that might be the architecture or the people featured in the ad on the left side of the photo, or perhaps the yellow-and-green ATM and what it might tell us about banking in Central Asian.
My brain fixated on the RC Cola sign at the very top.
Here, in order, were my initial questions:
What the hell is RC Cola doing on a newish-looking sign on a grocery store in Tajikistan? I haven’t seen that stuff for sale in decades.
Is it popular across Tajikistan?
Is it popular elsewhere in Central Asia?
Are there other places, outside the USA, where it continues to thrive?
Or … is this all just an example of an outsider dropping into a place and completely misinterpreting what they’re seeing?
Off I went to Google, where I found an RC Cola International PDF, which claimed that “the RC brand is a market leader in Tajikistan” and confirmed that it’s still going strong in a handful of other countries.
I opened more tabs, and then even more. Soon enough, I was tracking down papers on Jstor, digging through corporate Instagram posts from years back, watching surreal television ads from the Philippines, contacting people who live in and/or study Central Asia, exploring the footnotes of beverage-industry white papers, and obsessively digging through blog posts from the U.S. Embassy in Tashkent (that’s in Uzbekistan, but surely you knew that).
And I should repeat here: I’ve been thinking about this for more than a year. I found that photo in September 2022 and did a ton of research at that point, and then on and off since then. My notes file kept getting longer and longer, but I felt no closer to a definitive satisfying answer to the question of why RC Cola is popular in Tajikistan.
Even as I write this, I’m still not entirely sure what to make of it all. It’s a complicated story.
But here, at last, is an attempt to explain RC Cola’s enduring popularity in Tajikistan.
Let’s quickly note the obvious: in many ways, this is just another chapter in globalization and corporate conquest. American brands are a big deal outside the USA and Coke, specifically, is possibly the archetypal example of globalization in the postwar era (see: “Cocacolonization”). There’s precedent here.
Even so, RC Cola feels like something other than the same old story, because there’s less of an obvious starting point back home—in the USA, the brand has neither a clear persona nor, uh, significant sales. RC Cola’s current market share in the USA is so low that I literally can’t find it. There are probably some paywalled industry charts that would show it, but my interest and research budget only go so far.
I did find this info from a Washington Post story about the brand’s decline, published in 1995:
RC's market share fell from a high of 10 percent in 1970 to a slight 2 percent of the $51.2 billion-a-year soft drink market today.
I also found an AdAge story from 1999 saying that the beverage’s market share was down to 0.3 percent. But that’s the most recent data point I could find from the USA, and there’s no reason to believe it’s made a stealth comeback; more likely, it’s only slipped further into cola oblivion here in the States.
If you search Google for information about RC Cola’s market share, all of the most recent hits are for places outside the USA. One of them is this story published in December 2020 on the RC Cola International website:
A Success Story: How a Tajikistan Soda Bottling Company, Obi Zulol, Increased Sales & Market Share with RC Cola International
Tajikistan’s Obi Zulol has grown to become the country’s leading soda bottling company by working in partnership with RC Cola International.
Now we’re getting somewhere. Maybe.
Obi Zulol really does seem to be Tajikistan’s biggest beverage company—that blog post isn’t just hype. It’s been bottling and selling RC Cola in the country since 2000 (much more on that shortly), while the first Coke plant there didn’t open until 2014. And while I can’t find any firm statistics on market share or sales figures, RC does seem to dominate the cola sector in Tajikistan, based on anecdotal data like the amount of news coverage it gets and the respective number of Instagram followers for the local Coke and RC Cola accounts (8,500 versus 20,600—a big gap!).
All of which is to say: RC Cola really is popular in Tajikistan.
But still: WHY?
If you like this, please consider a paid subscription. I’m a one-man operation and I rely on the generosity of readers like you to continue going down these food-related rabbit holes and sharing them with you. Thank you!
There are a few different possibilities here. Could be branding. Could be history. Could be some kinda boring technical reason.
Let’s investigate the branding first.
In Tajikstan and other nearby countries, one of RC Cola’s recurring marketing themes is that it’s a distinctly American product. You can see it, for example, on the image below, which is from the Facebook page of Obi Zulol, the brand’s bottler and distributor in Tajikstan. Note the emphasis on the hometown (Columbus, Georgia, USA) and the date the brand was established (1905), all in English.
When Obi Zulol set up a booth at an expo in Paris, the vibe was more old-fashioned, with an even stronger element of archetypal Americana.
Even in places where the American government has a less-than-stellar reputation, there’s often plenty of appreciation for the country’s stereotypical iconography. You can find an American-style diner in Tehran and a version of Jackson Hole in China, or hang out with German cowboys at the annual Karl May Festival.
Back in the mid-1990s, when Obi Zulol was getting its start, the Soviet Union had just collapsed and Americana held extra potency as a brand. McDonald’s had opened in Moscow, the Marlboro Man had galloped into Poland, and Levi’s served as both fashion statement and political expression.
A friend of mine, after a trip to Turkey years ago, observed that in the USA, cigarettes are sometimes advertised as having Turkish blend, while in Turkey, some cigarette brands promoted an American blend. “It’s just whatever means ‘exotic’ to you, that’s what they sell,” my friend said.
RC Cola in offers a similar sense of the exotic—Americana far from the USA. But it’s certainly not alone in that regard, and there’s no reason it would project that sensibility more than Coke does.
There’s also the possibility that local marketing efforts have set RC Cola apart. Perhaps it’s not just pitched as an American product but as something exceptional on its own terms, in a way that appeals to the country’s consumers.
This appears to be the reason for RC’s remarkable and recent rise in the Philippines. As of 2010, the brand had the largest share of the cola market in the Manila area thanks to ad campaigns focusing on the product’s lower price point; it was also helped along by production efficiencies developed by RC’s leadership within the country. (“We are working here with smaller facilities that are very agile, capable of responding to needs in a short period of time,” one of the executives explained at the time.)
More recently, RC Cola got a boost in the Philippines thanks a surreal ad campaign, which must been seen to be believed. ENJOY:
Amazing stuff, right?
Anyway, back in Central Asia, you can see plenty of efforts to hitch RC Cola to a sense of Tajik pride/nationalism, like this graphic from the brand’s official Facebook and Instagram pages, which celebrates Defender of the Fatherland Day.
(If you think that’s weird, I’ll direct your attention to these “Proud to be an American” Coke cans from a few years ago.)
It’s worth noting here that American brands sometimes sell themselves as simultaneously American and symbols of local pride and economic development. Again, Coke is the prime example, as Amanda Ciafone writes in her book Counter-Cola: A Multinational History of the Global Corporation:
Throughout the 1950s, Coca-Cola executives stressed that its bottlers were “local, independent” businesses; “everywhere you find Coke, you find it is a local enterprise,” Coca-Cola’s president H. B. Nicholson claimed in 1953.46 This became all the more imperative as Coca-Cola’s international business grew rapidly and governments questioned the desirability of allowing a giant multinational to monopolize production of nonessential consumer goods. When calls for government intervention in the market or expressions of economic nationalism resulted, Coca-Cola was depicted as a national industry—Philippine, Egyptian, or Colombian, not American.
Perhaps, then, RC Cola was trying to do the same thing in Tajikistan—build its brand under the auspices of helping a developing economy.
This appears to be exactly what happened, although there were some twists along the way from initial development to that sign appearing in a Google image spotted by a disillusioned travel writer one summer day.
You’ll recall Obi Zulol, the bottling company behind RC Cola in Tajikistan. Here’s my paraphrased version of the origin story that Obi Zulol, tells in its triumphant brand mythology, which includes a blog post on the RC Cola International website, an advertorial published on the website Asia Plus in 2018, and the company’s long (LONG) “About Us” section on its website.
After the Soviet Union collapsed and Tajikistan declared independence in 1991, the new country’s economy was in complete disarray. In 1992, a bold group of investors started a company called Obi Zulol to produce bottled water and carbonated soft drinks, which had never been made in Tajikistan before.
Obi Zulol’s founders planned to set up their new facility at a reservoir near Istravshan, in the northern part of the country, where scientists who tested the water found it to be as pure and refreshing and deliciously refreshing as anything in Italy or France.
Unfortunately, the new nation was already going through a violent civil war, which ran from May 1992 to June 1997 and made it impossible for the company to gain its footing and find strategic partners to finance the bottling plant. In 1998, Obi Zulol finally signed agreements with the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and the American AQUA Crystal Foundation, and construction finally got underway. Luckily, Obi Zulol had already secured a bottling agreement with RC Cola, in 1995, granting the Tajik company the right to produce and sell the American beverage across Central Asia.
The new bottling plant opened in September 2000. Its signature product from the outset was—and remains—Obi Zulol bottled water, which is often served by the nation’s leaders at official functions. It was also an approved water supplier for NATO troops serving in Afghanistan.
One of the recurring motifs of Obi Zulol’s brand mythology is that it helped build modern Tajikistan. In the country’s journey from post-Soviet disarray and violence to the ostensible stability of today (NB: it scores poorly on the Democracy Index), this company brought economic might, jobs, and a sense of national pride that you could literally taste in the water.
In contrast to Coke’s many efforts to get involved in local economies, RC Cola’s role in Tajikistan this—as an international corporation—appears to be minimal. I haven’t been able to track down any details of the deal, struck in 1995, that gave Obi Zulol the right to bottle that specific beverage. Why RC and not Coke or Pepsi? I don’t know. Probably a guy knew a guy.
But there’s still a question of what RC Cola means, in the broader cultural sense, to Tajikis. Is there something to Obi Zulol’s assertion that it’s at least partly a matter of loyalty to this specific company and its legacy in the broader narrative of the country’s history?
Last year, when I first started thinking about all this, I asked my various travel-writer contacts on Twitter if anyone could help me understand what was going on. A few different people got in touch, including one who’s very familiar with Tajikistan through her work as a consultant for a major banking organization. I’m not going to name her here because it’s been so long since that first contact and sometimes I feel weird about asking Important People to disrupt their Important Work to answer questions for this oddball newsletter.
Anyway, this person passed it along to a Tajik colleague, who provided this info:
She said that RC is the dominant soda brand in the north of Tajikistan, because the bottling plant is based in Sughd (the northern region). Coca Cola entered the market more recently, and initially had problems penetrating because it was more expensive and less sweet. Coca Cola adapted by reducing prices & increasing the sweetness, & now CC and Pepsi are both major players. She summarised that people are used to RC but it is a habit, not loyalty to the brand.
And that, I think, solves our mystery.
RC Cola is popular in northern Tajikistan because, well, it got there before the other big players. As our correspondent noted, and Obi Zulol highlights in some marketing efforts, the recipe is also notably sweet, compared to other colas—and, as every Coke and Pepsi loyalist can tell you, its the small differences that set cola flavors apart. But, again: “a habit, not loyalty to the brand.”
It’s worth reiterating that RC Cola’s sibling in Tajikistan, Obi Zulol’s namesake bottled water, does seem to offer some connection to national identity and pride, thanks to its local source and regular appearance in leaders’ photo ops. That’s interesting and worth another 2,000 words another day, I’m sure, but there’s no evidence that RC Cola has benefitted from this association in any meaningful way.
RC’s existence in Tajikistan has its roots in one of country’s most important periods, but its ongoing success is nothing more than first-mover advantage in a developing economy twenty-some years ago.
Before you go
If you enjoyed this, please share it! This one was especially tricky and time-consuming to research and write, and I’d love to have it reach beyond my usual audience.
I occasionally teach travel writing workshops on how to make a story come alive by focusing on the background details like for example, random advertisements. If that sounds like something you’d like to host (online or in-person) at your institution or literary festival or wherever, please get in touch! It’s a highly participatory workshop, fun for all ages and abilities—I’ve done it in high schools and colleges, at conferences, and even on a cruise ship, where I was an opening act for Julian Bond and Sandra Day O’Connor (not a joke, that really happened). Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org for more info!