Coca-Cola syrup (named after two of its original ingredients, coca leaves and kola nuts) was invented in 1886 by Dr John Styth Pemberton and sold in local chemists, mixed with carbonated water. Within a couple of years, he sold his invention to an Atlanta businessman, Asa Candler, who began marketing the product in earnest. He ensured the trademark appeared on a wide range of merchandise.
At the first evidence of competition, Coke set itself up as the genuine article and of superior quality to any rivals. In 1899, Candler sold the bottling rights in the US for the royal sum of $1. However, it wasn’t until this century that Coke’s marketing really took off, when its president, Robert Woodruff, defined Coca-Cola’s mission as “to be within arm’s reach of desire” around the world. Distribution has always been a key part of its strategy, illustrated best when the US entered the Second World War. Woodruff immediately announced that Coca-Cola would go wherever American GIs went, at a cost of five cents a bottle. By the end of the war, five billion bottles had been consumed.
This strategy was more than an exercise in building troop morale; it ensured Coke attained global reach. Advertising has always been at the crux of Coke’s strategy, and in 1911 its budget was more than $1m. A milestone came in 1971, with the ‘Hill Top’ ad, which was simultaneously broadcast worldwide. Post-Vietnam, with America’s image in dire straits, Coke’s response was to produce an ad declaring world peace. ‘Hill Top’ showed young people from 30 countries, each in their national costume, singing about “buying the world a home and furnishing it with love”. The tagline? ‘I’d like to buy the world a Coke’.
The ultimate Coca-Cola icon, the contoured bottle, was the result of a competition held in 1913 to “find a bottle anyone could recognise, even in the dark; a bottle unique in the world”. The winning design was created by the CJ Root Glass Company. But it hasn’t all been a smooth ride for Coke. In 1985, there was public outcry when it changed its formula, forcing it to reintroduce the original product as Coca-Cola Classic. More recently it was criticised for its handling of the contamination scare in Belgium, when it failed to react quickly enough. Its last set of results posted in the US showed an 11% decline in sales for the third quarter of 1999. Its full-year results for 1998 saw pre-tax profit fall by 14% to $5.2bn, making it the first-ever earnings drop reported by the soft drinks giant. Global sales remain relatively constant at $18.8bn. However, Coke has bounced back before and its current position is remarkable.
Worldwide, Coke has two of the three top-selling soft drinks: Coca-cola and Diet Coke. Its closet rival, Pepsi, is the second best-selling soft drink in the world. Coke sells half of all soft drinks consumed in the world, is distributed to more than 200 countries, has the best recognised commercial trademark in the world today and is the biggest brand in the world.