The Strange but Interesting History Behind the Coca-Cola Brand

By Jake Schroeder
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Photo Courtesy: Matthew Horwood/Getty Images

Coca-Cola is the third most valuable brand internationally — only behind Apple and Google — with about $90 billion in assets. It's the drink of choice for millions of people all across the globe, and almost everyone recognizes the iconic logo of the popular soda, even if they don't drink it themselves.

However, many people don’t know the strange story behind the start of the company and all the intriguing facts about the brand throughout the decades. Read on to learn more about the interesting history behind the Coca-Cola brand.

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A Debilitating Injury

Coca-Cola actually had a pretty gruesome start. During the Civil War, a Confederate colonel named John Pemberton suffered a terrible saber wound to the chest and had to be carried away from the fight. Considering the deep wound, the soldiers assumed Colonel Pemberton would die. To ease his pain during what they expected to be his last few hours, doctors gave him a great deal of morphine.

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Unfortunately, Pemberton became addicted to the morphine that helped him survive. He even started his own pharmacy to gain access to an unlimited supply of the drug. His reliance on morphine lasted for almost a decade, but it was also the start of the most popular soda on earth.

Searching for a Cure

With the addiction taking a toll on his body, Pemberton started working on a cure to kick the habit. During the late 1800s, most cures for illnesses were "patent medicines" that were over-the-counter remedies that were promoted without regard for effectiveness or potential side effects. In most cases, they weren't very different from exotic liquors at the time.

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Pemberton heard about coca wine, a mixture of wine and cocaine that was popular in France. Using coca wine, he made his first product, Pemberton's French Wine Coca Nerve Tonic, which was shipped to pharmacies to be mixed with soda water and dispensed by trained professionals.

Effects of Prohibition

In 1886, Atlanta and other parts of Georgia implemented prohibition laws, banning the production and sale of alcohol. That meant Pemberton could no longer sell his French Wine Coca Nerve Tonic as it was. Prohibition laws did not ban the use of cocaine, so Pemberton decided to reformulate his product into a non-alcoholic product that included 9 milligrams of cocaine but no wine.

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The product was very popular and ultimately stopped using cocaine in the formulation after 1903. However, one of Coke's partners, Stepan Company, has the only active license to import and process coca leaves (from which cocaine is made).

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The Production Process

The actual production process behind Coca-Cola was unique for its time and is one of the secrets behind the brand’s success. Instead of investing in facilities and distributors to create and sell the product, Pemberton focused on making the product at his own plant. He then shipped the syrup out to contractors and other businesses to mix it and sell it exactly how they wanted.

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The flexible production-sales-distribution process allowed for local distributors to experiment with marketing and delivery without harming the reputation of the brand. Coca-Cola dispensaries popped up throughout the South, selling the popular drink for five cents a glass.

New Ownership

Sadly, John Pemberton died in 1888 from stomach cancer that was likely related to his addiction to morphine. The flexible structure of his company led to some major legal issues after he was gone. No one was clear about ownership and responsibilities within the company.

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One of Pemberton's partners, Asa Candler, stated he bought a controlling stake in the company before Pemberton died. Pemberton's son, Charles, however, claimed he owned the rights to the brand name and that Candler was using the product recipe under an informal license. Candler eventually paid off everyone who had a stake in the brand so he could assume complete control.

An Unforgettable Logo

By 1891, Candler was the sole proprietor of Coca-Cola after investing $3,000 to buy all shares and rights. Under his direction, Coca-Cola was positively transformed forever. In 1885, before Pemberton died, Frank Mason Robinson — either Candler’s or Pemberton's bookkeeper — wrote out the name of the business in Spencerian script.

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At the time, every child enrolled in school had to learn the special script, so it was well known. When he saw it, Candler loved the look so much that he decided to keep it as the official logo for the company. The famed Coca-Cola logo is now known all over the world.

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Free Samples

Candler was so invested in the company that he was always working on new marketing tactics to get the Coca-Cola name out there. As early as 1886, he began passing out little slips of paper that could be redeemed for a single glass of Coca-Cola.

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Some historians believe this was the first time a company issued what could pass as coupons for free samples of its product to create marketing buzz. Between 1894 and 1913, approximately one in nine Americans had tasted a free Coke using one of these coupons. This tactic helped grow the company's consumer base, turning sample testers into loyal customers.

Bottling the Product

Originally, Candler focused on selling the Coca-Cola syrup to pharmacies and fountains, which had always been the product's main distributors. However, he began working with a Vicksburg-based distributor in 1891 to come up with preliminary ideas for bottling the product. Eight years later, Coca-Cola set up its first bottling plant in Chattanooga through another independent distributor.

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Bottled Coke turned out to be a huge success. Candler and his team focused on turning the product into a cool, refreshing drink anyone could enjoy at any time instead of a cure for random illnesses — and it paid off in a big way. The company stopped marketing and selling the product to pharmacies and turned to individual consumers.

Santa Loves Coke

Before Santa Claus became a jolly, fat man in a red suit, he was simply known as Father Christmas, a lean, tall man in a red, green or brown suit. Even more interesting, did you know that Coca-Cola is responsible for turning Santa into the huge Christmas figurehead he is today?

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In its advertising, the company used Santa Claus to help boost sales during the winter months. He was shown passing out gifts and cuddling with kids as he drank a nice glass of Coca-Cola. For the last century, kids in the United States have grown up with the myth of Santa Claus and passed that tradition along to their own families, along with the association of the soda with the character.

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The Struggle Overseas

Even during its early years, Coca-Cola was exported overseas informally, particularly to Cuba. In fact, the first rum and Coke was reportedly mixed in a Havana bar in 1900. A Signal Corps officer raised a toast with the drink after Cuba's newly won freedom from Spain, and the drink became a staple in nightclubs after that.

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Cuba was an exception in terms of early export success. Candler's son and successor tried to popularize the drink overseas in Europe, particularly in the UK, Germany and France, but it wasn't successful at first. The idea of drinking a non-alcoholic beverage, especially one made by Americans, didn't go over well at the time.

A New Owner

In 1919, Candler’s children sold The Coca-Cola Company to a group of investors led by Atlanta businessman Ernest Woodruff for $25 million. Woodruff took the company public and launched a plan to grow the business overseas. He realized that bottles would do much better overseas than the fountains that were still popular in the U.S.

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To accomplish his plan, Woodruff invested in developing metal-topped coolers to keep the bottles cold and then invented a six-pack with a handle. People could then buy more Coke to keep their coolers filled. He also created the coin-operated cooler that dispensed a single bottle for a nickel, which became popular at gas stations.

Breaking Through Overseas

Coca-Cola attempted to market the product overseas again in 1925. The company opened an office solely dedicated to selling the drink worldwide. During the late 1920s and early 1930s, the company advertised, gave away and sold Coca-Cola all over Europe, marketing it as a cool, refreshing import all the way from America.

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Coke also created a special "export bottle" for foreign consumers. The bottles were dark green and inspired by champagne magnums. Executives believed the French, in particular, would be more likely to drink the product if it looked like it was wine. The bottles even had a gold foil seal over the cap.

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Product Association

Woodruff was full of marketing ideas to sell the product. One of those ideas was to sponsor the U.S. Olympic team in 1928. The team arrived in Amsterdam along with 40,000 bottles of Coca-Cola. The result? Coca-Cola products continue to be highlighted at the Olympics today. The 1996 Centenary Games were even held in Atlanta, the current home of Coca-Cola's corporate headquarters.

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Woodruff was also able to make connections between Coca-Cola and the U.S military. During World War II, he promised active soldiers they could enjoy a cold Coke anywhere they went during the war. Outside of a few isolated places, he stuck to his word. This also allowed for more foreigners to buy the drink.

Covering Time

In 1950, the product became the first to be featured on the cover of Time magazine. The historic cover featured an illustration of the Earth drinking from a Coke bottle. This showed just how popular Coca-Cola had become, not only in the States but all over the globe.

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The magazine originally wanted to go in a completely different direction. The idea was to put a photo of Robert Woodruff on the cover, but he refused. He believed the product was the only important element of the company and should, therefore, be the only thing featured on the magazine cover. You can’t fault that logic — the cover was certainly unforgettable.

Changing Things Up

After World War II, Coca-Cola continued to expand in terms of packaging and developing new products. The trademark "Coke," which was first used in advertising in 1941, was officially registered in 1945. The following year, the company purchased the rights to Fanta, a soft drink that had been developed in Germany. The contoured Coke bottle, which was released in 1916, was registered as a trademark in 1960.

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Continuing to try new products, The Coca-Cola Company released the popular lemon-lime drink known as Sprite in 1961 and its first diet cola (Tab) in 1963. The company introduced non-carbonated citrus juices after its purchase of Minute Maid Corporation in 1960 and then added the brand Fresca in 1966.

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New Coke Fail

In 1985, the company infamously changed the formula of Coca-Cola to what was commonly referred to as "New Coke." Consumers hated the new soda formula, and plunging sales reflected the outraged backlash. The new formula was only on sale to the public for 79 days before the company brought back the original formula, which was marketed from that point on as "Coca-Cola Classic."

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Interestingly, "New Coke" was brought back as a limited release flavor in the summer of 2019. The company re-released it in partnership with the popular Netflix series Stranger Things, which is set in the 1980s. Fans were able to try the formula to get a taste of what "New Coke" was like — for 79 days at least.

Coke in the Morning

In the late 1980s, Coca-Cola discovered that roughly 12% of its customers consumed the caffeinated drink in the morning instead of coffee. In light of this discovery, the company decided to do an aggressive marketing campaign promoting Coke as a morning pick-me-up.

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The company ran its "Coke in the Morning" campaign in several test cities in 1988, stating that it might be easier and quicker to just chug a cold Coke rather than going through the process of making coffee each morning. Of course, the company was careful not to mention giving up orange juice for the soda. After all, the company also owns Minute Maid.

"MagiCans" Promotion

In a continuous attempt to promote the brand, Coca-Cola came up with a pretty funky marketing idea in 1990. The idea was to run a promotion where certain cans had cash or coupons instead of coke. That meant it was also necessary to prevent consumers from simply picking up cans to find the ones without soda in them.

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Instead, these "MagiCans" with prizes were filled with water that was combined with chlorine and foul-smelling ammonium sulfate. The disgusting smell was supposed to stop people from drinking the contents by accident, but, of course, some did anyway. Needless to say, this marketing tactic didn't go over so well with consumers.

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Deck the Halls

As mentioned previously with Santa Claus, Coca-Cola is well known for its holiday advertising. Another standout advertising campaign during the Christmas season is the happy polar bear with the bright red Coca-Cola scarf. The bears became a lasting part of the brand in 1993 when the company released its "Northern Lights" commercial.

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After that, Coca-Cola began selling stuffed polar bears to visitors at its headquarters, and the trend took off from there. The bears are not only seen in the company's commercials but also on its holiday soda cans. The special edition cans usually also feature other hidden images in the adorable illustrations. Be sure to look closely!

Continued Growth

The Coca-Cola Company continued to soar during the 1990s, adding both East Germany and India to its distribution channel during the decade. The brand also introduced its first bottle made partially from recycled plastic, which was a step forward in helping the environment at the time.

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During the decade, Coca-Cola began creating and distributing new beverages, including the Asia-marketed Qoo children's fruit drink, Powerade sports drink, Dasani bottled water, Barq's Root Beer, Inca Kola in Peru and Thums Up, Maaza and Limca in India. It was a big step forward in manufacturing more products for distribution worldwide, beyond just soft drinks for consumers.

A Controversial Lawsuit

In the early 2000s, Coca-Cola dealt with allegations of illegal soil and water pollution as well as allegations of severe human rights violations. In 2001, the United Steelworkers of America and the International Labor Rights Fund filed a lawsuit against the company as well as Bebidas y Alimentos and Panamerican Beverages, Inc. (the primary bottlers of Coca-Cola products in Latin America).

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The suit claimed that the defendants had hired "death squads" to intimidate, torture, kidnap and even kill union officials in Latin America. The case got worldwide attention and led to some American universities banning the sale of Coca-Cola products on their campuses. Of course, the lawsuit was eventually dismissed, leaving those trigger-happy universities with egg on their face.

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Standing Up for Causes

In the 2000s, The Coca-Cola Company stood up for issues affecting people all over the world. The company worked with the United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) to battle the epidemic in Africa. The Coca-Cola Foundation and bottlers of the products contributed a collective $12 million to disaster relief following the September 11 attacks.

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In 2005, the company joined the Business Leaders Initiative on Human Rights (BLIHR), a group of companies dedicated to developing and implementing corporate policies and responses to human rights issues in business. It also went on to launch the Haiti Hope Project in 2010 to help develop a sustainable mango industry after a devastating earthquake rocked the country.

Spies on the Inside

Another controversial moment in Coca-Cola history happened in 2006, when two Coca-Cola employees were caught trying to sell company secrets to the company's top rival, Pepsi. One of the secrets included information on a beverage still in development. The exchange involved a series of payoffs ranging from $5,000 to $75,000.

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Pepsi did the honorable thing, however, and alerted both Coca-Cola and the FBI to the offer. When the employees handed over confidential papers and even a liquid sample to a "Pepsi executive," it was really an FBI agent. A Pepsi spokesperson told CNN at the time that competition "must be fair and legal." The two spies were eventually sentenced to prison terms of five and eight years.

World of Coca-Cola

Today, World of Coca-Cola is a 20-acre museum located in Atlanta, Georgia. In 1990, the original museum was located in Underground Atlanta and educated visitors on the history of the Coca-Cola brand. The new complex opened in 2007 and is just blocks away from where John Pemberton created the original Coca-Cola.

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The museum features interactive exhibits about the history of the brand and the development of the secret formula as well as a 4D movie about a scientist and assistant who try to uncover the secret themselves. Visitors can taste 60 different flavors of Coca-Cola products from around the world and see a fully functional bottling line that produced 8-ounce bottles of Coke.

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The Secret Formula

Speaking of the secret formula for Coca-Cola, it’s said to be heavily guarded in a corporate vault. The recipe is accessible only to top executives. However, a 2011 report published by NPR claimed the hidden formula had been discovered.

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According to NPR's This American Life, reporters announced they had found the recipe in papers belonging to John Pemberton that had been discovered by an Atlanta historian named Charles Salter. The drink allegedly uses fluid extract of coca, lemon oil, cinnamon oil, nutmeg oil and caramel. Coca-Cola insisted that if it was true at all, it was an old formula. The company never acknowledged whether the list of ingredients matched up with their own.

A Worldwide Name

There’s no doubt that the Coca-Cola company is well known across the globe. Today, 3.1% of all beverages consumed around the world are Coca-Cola products. That's 1.7 billion beverages out of 55 billion. It has also been reported that the red and white Coca-Cola logo is recognized by 94% of the world's population.

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Coca-Cola also claims the actual name is the second most-understood term in the world, coming in right behind the word "okay." In fact, the company once launched a soft drink named "OK Soda," so it could own the two most recognized words in the world. Imagine that!

The Biggest Consumers

Today, Coca-Cola is sold virtually everywhere in the world, something its early owners always wanted. People all over the world drink 1.9 billion servings of Coke each day. Interestingly, although the brand began in the U.S., American consumers don’t make up Coke's largest customer base.

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Mexico is the largest consumer of Coca-Cola products annually. The popularity of the products in Mexico began around the same time Coca-Cola sponsored the Mexico City Olympics and the World Cup in the 1970s. It was reported by Business Insider that Mexicans drink 745 Coke beverages per person per year, on average. Americans drink almost half that much, at about 401 Coke products per person per year being consumed.

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Coke's Largest Restaurant Customer

Coca-Cola and McDonald's have had a strong relationship since 1955. That year, Ray Kroc, who was working to expand McDonald's throughout the country, contacted Coke executive Waddy Pratt to make a deal to sell Coke’s sodas in the chain’s restaurants.

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Over the years, McDonald's has become the company's largest restaurant customer, even expanding globally with the help of Coca-Cola. In fact, it often used the company's offices as a base of operations to get restaurants up and running. The two companies have worked together to create collaborative campaigns to boost sales for their food and beverages and continue to do so to this day.

Live Positively

In 2009, the Coca-Cola Company launched its Live Positively campaign. The purpose of the campaign was for the company to commit to seven core areas that were key to the company's business sustainability. The goal was for the company to make better choices in regard to the environment and people's daily lives.

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Live Positively focuses on energy efficiency, climate protection, sustainable packaging, active healthy living, water stewardship, quality beverages, fostering community and creating diverse and safe work environments. The company also committed to reducing sugar in its drinks and has cut carbon emissions related to the production of its products.

Rolling in the Dough

The Coca-Cola brand today is worth an estimated $83.8 billion. That's more than the profits of Budweiser, Subway, Pepsi and KFC combined. With a stacked product portfolio of more than 3,500 beverages (and 500 brands), including sodas, energy drinks and soy-based drinks, it's easy to see why.

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Photo Courtesy: Brent Lewin/Bloomberg/Getty Images

Coke has so many different beverages that you could drink one a day for nine years without drinking them all. Twenty brands owned by Coke generate more than $1 billion each in sales per year. Those powerhouse brands include Minute Maid, Powerade, Sprite, Simply Orange, Fanta, Dasani and, of course, the original Coca-Cola.

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