125 years of Coke: From Atlanta to Facebook

Coca-Cola celebrates 125 years
Coca-Cola celebrates 125 years

The brand history of Coke. From its creation by pharmacist John Pemberton, through its famous ads and slogans and on to its social media strategy.

1886-1892: Atlanta beginnings

Coke was created in 1886 by John Pemberton, an Atlanta pharmacist who stirred up a fragrant, caramel-coloured liquid and sold it to Jacobs' Pharmacy. Here, the mixture was combined with carbonated water and put on sale for 5c (about 3p) a glass. Pemberton's bookkeeper, Frank Robinson, named the mixture Coca-Cola, which he wrote out in his distinctive script. To this day, the Coca-Cola logo is written the same way.

In the first year, Pemberton sold just nine glasses of Coca-Cola a day.

1893-1904: Beyond Atlanta

Asa Candler, a natural-born salesman, transformed Coca-Cola from an invention into a business, and in many ways was the brand's first chief marketing officer. Candler knew there were thirsty people out there, and he found brilliant and innovative ways to introduce them to this exciting refreshment. He gave away coupons for complimentary first tastes of Coca-Cola, and outfitted distributing pharmacists with clocks, urns, calendars and apothecary scales bearing the logo. People saw the name everywhere, and the aggressive promotion worked. By 1895, Candler had built syrup plants in Chicago, Dallas and Los Angeles.

In 1894, a Mississippi businessman named Joseph Biedenharn became the first to put Coca-Cola in bottles. He sent 12 of them to Candler, who responded without enthusiasm. However, in 1899, two Chattanooga lawyers, Benjamin Thomas and Joseph Whitehead, secured exclusive rights from Candler to bottle and sell the beverage - for the sum of only $1.

1905-1918: Safeguarding the brand

The Coca-Cola Company was none too pleased about the proliferation of copycat beverages taking advantage of its success. Advertising therefore focused on the authenticity of Coca-Cola, urging consumers to 'Demand the genuine' and 'Accept no substitute'.

The company also decided to create a distinctive bottle shape to assure people they were getting genuine Coke. The Root Glass Company of Terre Haute, Indiana, won a contest to design a bottle that could be recognised by its shape in the dark and when broken. In 1916, they began manufacturing the famous contour bottle.

1919-1940: The Woodruff years


Perhaps no person had more impact on The Coca-Cola Company than Robert Woodruff. From 1923, four years after his father Ernest purchased the company from Asa Candler, Woodruff spent more than 60 years as company leader, expanding the brand beyond the US. He was also a marketing man and in 1928 made the first link between the brand and the Olympics - an association that remains a cornerstone of the brand's marketing strategy.

In 1931, magazine ads for Coca-Cola first featured images of Santa Claus, created by artist Haddon Sunblom. It goes without saying that Coke created neither Christmas nor Santa, but the view most people have of the latter, clad in red, is based on Coca-Cola's advertising.

1941-1959: The war and its legacy


In 1941, the US entered World War II. The country, and Coca-Cola, rallied behind the nation's servicemen. Woodruff ordered that 'every man in uniform gets a bottle of Coca-Cola for 5c, wherever he is, and whatever it costs the company'.

In the 50s, the company unveiled its first branding in London's Piccadilly Circus; it is still advertising Coke there today.

In 1956, Coca-Cola launched its first TV ad in the UK, introducing the strapline 'Refreshingly different'.

1960-1981: 'I'd like to teach the world to sing' (and drink Coke) The 60s were a key period for Coca-Cola, which expanded with additional flavours and variants such as Sprite and 'tab'. However, it was Coke's advertising, rather than the company's NPD, that ensured the success of the brand.

Coca-Cola's position as a premier global brand was cemented by its 1971 commercial, in which a group of young people gathered on a hilltop in Italy to belt out a branded version of The New Seekers' I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing.

1982-1989: The New Coke fiasco

The 80s were a time of wardrobe and marketing malfunctions. While consumers invested in legwarmers, shoulder pads and headbands, Coca-Cola embarked on a period of 'intelligent risk-taking'.

This included the introduction of Diet Coke, the first extension of the Coca-Cola trademark, which in just two years became the bestselling low-calorie drink in the world, second in general sales only to Coke itself. However, in 1985, Coca-Cola embarked on one of the biggest blunders in marketing history by changing the formulation of Coke for the first time in 99 years.

While researchers had found that people preferred New Coke in sampling, consumers apparently hated it when the product subsequently hit the shelves. The original formula was reinstated to the market as Coca-Cola Classic.

1990-1999: The Fruit effect

In 1991, one of the most influential marketers in the history of Coca-Cola, Charles Fruit, joined the company as head of global media services, becoming chief marketer in 2004.

Fruit was behind several key marketing initiatives, including the 'Always Coca-Cola' campaign. He also orchestrated the landmark product-placement deal with TV show American Idol, in which branded cups graced the judges' tabletop.

In 1993, the Coca-Cola polar bear was born. By 1997, 1bn servings of Coca-Cola's products were being made every day.

The Diet Coke 'break' ad released in 1994

2000 and beyond: Getting to grips with social media

Now, at the grand age of 125, Coke has become one of the world's most ubiquitous brands, with more than 1.6bn beverages sold each day.

It will, however, need more than a shapely bottle and massive advertising budget to maintain its success among the Facebook and Twitter generation.

Insider information: NPD on the backburner

In the previous decade, Coca-Cola looked to expand sales by adding a number of variants. Coke Zero became a prominent fixture on supermarket shelves, with millions of pounds spent on ambitiously aiming the low-calorie drink at men. Meanwhile, the company rolled out a series of flavoured variants under its Diet Coke brand.

Among the innovations were Diet Coke Vanilla, Diet Coke with Lime, Diet Coke Cherry and Diet Coke Plus. The latter, containing various vitamins and minerals, was launched in 2007 to tap into the growing healthy-living agenda, but it failed to take off and was discontinued.

According to Coca-Cola's marketing director for North West Europe & Nordics, Nick Robinson, such NPD is now well and truly on the back burner. 'We are always looking at the right type of innovation for the brand - we would be daft not to - but it's not a big focus for us at the moment,' he reveals.

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