Coca-Cola: 129 Years of Marketing Dominance

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The ubiquitous red calls to us from billboards worldwide: Want to enjoy a pause with friends? Need a little pick-me-up? Grab a Coke. The Coca-Cola brand is a worldwide phenomenon, grossing over $30 billion in 2014 alone. How did a simple sparkling tonic made from coca leaves and kola nuts turn into the world’s most powerful brand?

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Creating A Market

In 1886, the soda fountain at the neighborhood drug store was emerging as a prominent social gathering place. Temperance movements were closing down bars as evangelical fever swept parts of the South, and soda fountains offered a sober alternative. Dr. John S. Pemberton created a distinctive soft drink to be served at these soda fountains, focusing on the health benefits of the refreshing coca leaf and kola nut extracts. (The rumors that Coke originally contained cocaine derive from the coca leaf extract in the original formula. Technically, it is the same chemical, but not the pure form of the drug. One would have had to drink 30 glasses of the original Coca-Cola formula in order to ingest a “dose” of cocaine.) Coca-Cola was advertised as a “nerve tonic” to invigorate and refresh those living the modern, busy lifestyle.

While Pemberton wisely foresaw the popularity of soft drinks, especially as a social alternative for those abstaining from alcohol consumption, he didn’t have a clue how to market his invention. His partner and bookkeeper Frank M. Robinson came up with the name “Coca-Cola”, and created the distinctive script logo still in use today. Soda fountains across Atlanta began selling the beverage for 5 cents a glass, making Coca-Cola a modestly popular local concoction.

After Pemberton’s death in 1888, Atlanta businessman Asa Candler expanded Coca-Cola’s distribution outside the local area. Candler hired traveling salesmen to distribute coupons for a free Coke, encouraging people to try out the novel beverage. Coca-Cola was the first company to utilize coupons and direct-mail marketing techniques to build a brand. Candler put the Coke logo on everything from calendars to bookmarks, making it a recognizable symbol of refreshment.

Realizing the growing popularity of the soft drink, Joseph Biedenharn began bottling Coca-Cola in the rear of his Mississippi soda shop in 1894. At the time, there was no centralized bottling system for any beverage, and the concept of purchasing a drink for home enjoyment was still new to consumers.

Several years later, three businessmen bought the exclusive bottling rights to Coca-Cola and developed what is now known as the Coca-Cola bottling system.

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Bottle Up The Good Stuff

Prior to 1900, the only way to bottle a beverage (besides the classic cork stopper) was with a Hutchinson stopper, a cumbersome wire and rubber contraption that was discontinued in 1916. Can you imagine popping a cork or twisting a wire stoper every time you opened a Coke?

That’s what Candler thought when Benjamin Thomas, Joseph Whitehead and John Lupton approached him about bottling Coca-Cola in 1899. He sold them the rights for $1, thinking they would never make money. Luckily for Thomas and his cohorts, the bottle cap was invented in 1900, allowing Coca-Cola to be bottled without sacrificing quality.

Coca-Cola wasn’t the only beverage to be put in a bottle, and imitators soon started to emerge. In the time before refrigeration, soda bottles were kept cold in ice. Paper labels would quickly fall off, so Coca-Cola needed a more distinct way to differentiate from imitations. In 1916, the company held a contest for designing a new bottle, and the iconic Coke bottle was born. The instantly recognizable shape and contours of the bottle made it stand out in a crowded ice bucket.

Bottled Coca-Cola opened up a new market of at-home drinkers, and marketing targeted to the housewife responsible for grocery shopping quickly emerged. Pretty female models showing off the “delicious and refreshing” beverage further emphasized the idea that a charming hostess would serve Coca-Cola.  The six-pack and the “family size” and “King size” bottles of Coca-Cola (precursors to the modern 2-liter) and were developed with the housewife in mind, allowing her to bring home larger and larger quantities of Coke to the family.

Another market was opened as a result of bottled Coke: African-Americans, and other “colored” people. Many soda fountains were segregated, and did not allow “colored” folks to enjoy the refreshments. But grocery stores sold Coke to everyone, so the bottled product allowed an otherwise marginalized group to still enjoy the beverage.

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Lifestyle Marketing, Prohibition Style

Coca-Cola’s popularity as a social beverage was boosted in the early 20th century by everyone’s least favorite Constitutional amendment: Prohibition. Alcohol was federally banned for sale or consumption from 1920-1933 (Alcohol bans had been in place locally since the late 1800s. The “Temperance Movement” was part of the reason Pemberton invented Coke, and why soda fountains had become social hotspots). What better substitute than an ice-cold Coca-Cola?

Marketers ramped up their message that Coca-Cola was a wholesome alternative to the devil’s liquor, and that Coke is an essential part of any fun, social activity. Ads showing baseball games, picnics, drives in the country, conversations with friends, and any other recreational activity imaginable drove home the message that Coke was the “pause that refreshes”.

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Simplicity Is Key

Throughout the years, Coca-Cola’s marketing slogans have been vaguely generic in the most effective way. Coke ads are simple: “Pause for Refreshment”, “Coke is it!”, “Always Coca-Cola”, “Open Happiness”. Everyone likes to feel refreshed. “It!” can be whatever that means to you; the slogan is left intentionally vague so the consumer’s mind can fill it in. “Open Happiness!”, in a similar fashion, encourages thoughts of whatever it is that makes the consumer happy, rather than dictating what the happiness is. The jingle “Wherever there’s fun there’s always Coca-Cola!” isn’t specific, but everyone likes to have fun, of course! The key message is that Coke is part of the good things in life, whether it’s fun, refreshment, or happiness.

By keeping a simple brand message, Coke has never been limited to a particular demographic. Young people and old people, across all races and income levels: everyone loves a refreshing treat shared with friends. The clever “Share a Coke” campaign speaks to consumers worldwide; by simply printing popular names on the label, Coke personalizes the fun on a deeper level across cultural boundaries.  Everyone wants to be happy and feel good, and that’s what Coke’s marketing message promised. Drink a Coke, and you’ll have fun, you’ll feel refreshed, you’ll feel happy. No one drinks Coke sad and alone in the corner, people who drink Coke have friends and activities to enjoy.

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If It Ain’t Broke, Don’t Fix It

One of the most famous case studies in business is the New Coke disaster of the 1980’s. Market tests showed a new formula of Coke had done well on blind taste tests, but even Coca-Cola executives didn’t understand how iconic the Coke brand was among drinkers. The backlash to a formula change (despite the fact that many people agreed it tasted better!) was immense. Within weeks of New Coke’s release in 1985, the Old Cola Drinkers of America had formed to protest the change. Thousands of angry letters and phone calls flooded corporate offices, and by July, Classic Coke was back on the shelves.

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Branding Trumps All

The New Coke incident showed how ingrained and iconic Coca-Cola had become in American culture. Over the last 125 years, Coke’s simple messages, effective marketing campaigns, and highly visible global sponsorships of world events like the Olympics have created one of the most influential brands in existence. Even as anti-obesity measures target soft drinks as a top culprit of childhood obesity, the imagery and nostalgia of Coca-Cola as a brand outweighs the adverse health effects of the product itself. In the global psyche, it’s Always Coca-Cola.

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What does Coca-Cola as a brand mean to you? Does the thought of Coke conjure up fond memories of baseball games and your grandmother’s kitchen, or remind you of an obese uncle whose diabetes is certainly related to a lifelong Coca-Cola addiction?

Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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