The History of Coca-Cola

John Pemberton was the inventor of Coca-Cola

Contemporary Coca Cola Can
Contemporary Coca Cola Can. Courtesy Coca Cola Company

n May 1886, Coca-Cola was invented by Doctor John Pemberton a pharmacist from Atlanta, Georgia. According to the Coca-Cola Company, Pemberton developed the syrup for the famed beverage, which was sampled at the local Jacob's Pharmacy and deemed to be "excellent." The syrup was combined with carbonated water to create a new "Delicious and Refreshing" drink. Pemberton concocted the famed Coca-Cola formula in a three-legged brass kettle in his backyard.

 

Birth of Coca-Cola

The name of Coca-Cola was a suggestion given by Pemberton's bookkeeper Frank Robinson. As the recipe for the syrup called for coca leaf extract and caffeine from the kola nut, the name Coca Kola was easy to come up with. However, Robinson, who was known for having excellent penmanship, thought that using two Cs in the name would look striking in advertising. As such kola became cola, and the brand name was born. Robinson can also be credited with creating the first scripted "Coca-Cola" using the flowing letters that serve as the famous logo of today.

The soft drink was first sold to the public at the soda fountain in Jacob's Pharmacy in Atlanta on May 8, 1886. About nine servings of the soft drink were sold each day. Sales for that first year added up to a total of about $50. The first year of business wasn't much of a success, though, as it cost Pemberton over $70 in expenses to create the drink, resulting in a loss.

Asa Candler

In 1887, another Atlanta pharmacist and businessman, Asa Candler, bought the formula for Coca-Cola from Pemberton for $2,300. By the late 1890s, Coca-Cola was one of America's most popular fountain drinks, largely due to Candler's aggressive marketing of the product. With Candler now at the helm, the Coca-Cola Company increased syrup sales by over 4,000 percent between 1890 and 1900.

While the Coca-Cola Company denies this claim, historical evidence shows that it is likely that, until 1905, the soft drink, which was marketed as a tonic, contained extracts of cocaine as well as the caffeine-rich kola nut. While cocaine wasn't considered illegal until 1914, according to Live Science, Candler began removing cocaine from the recipe in the early 1900s, and traces of cocaine may have been present in the famous beverage until 1929, when scientists were able to perfect the removal of all psychoactive elements from the coca-leaf extract.

Advertising was an important factor in John Pemberton and Asa Candler's success, and by the turn of the century, the drink was sold across the United States and Canada. Around the same time, the company began selling syrup to independent bottling companies licensed to sell the drink. Even today, the U.S. soft drink industry is organized on this principle.

Death of the Soda Fountain; Rise of the Bottling Industry

Until the 1960s, both small-town and big-city dwellers enjoyed carbonated beverages at the local soda fountain or ice cream saloon. Often housed in the drugstore, the soda fountain counter served as a meeting place for people of all ages.

Often combined with lunch counters, the soda fountain declined in popularity as commercial ice cream, bottled soft drinks, and fast-food restaurants became popular.

The Birth and Death of New Coke

On April 23, 1985, the trade secret "New Coke" formula was launched in response to declining sales thanks to an increasingly competitive cola market. However, the new recipe was considered a failure. Coca-Cola fans had a negative, some say hostile, reaction to the new recipe, and within three months, the original cola that captured the hearts and tastebuds of the public returned. The return of the original cola taste came with new branding of Coca-Cola Classic. New Coke remained on the shelves, and in 1992 was rebranded Coke II, before finally being discontinued in 2002.

As of 2017, Coca-Cola is a publicly traded Fortune 500 company with more than $41.3 billion in annual revenue.

The company has a workforce 146,200 employees, and its products are consumed at the rate of more than one billion drinks per day.

Advertising Efforts: "I'd Like to Buy the World a Coke"

In 1969, the Coca-Cola Company and its advertising agency, McCann-Erickson, ended their popular "Things Go Better With Coke" campaign, replacing it with a campaign that centered on the slogan "It's the Real Thing." Beginning with a hit song, the new campaign featured what proved to be one of the most popular ads ever created.

The song "I'd Like to Buy the World a Coke" had its origins on January 18, 1971, in a fog. Bill Backer, the creative director on the Coca-Cola account for McCann-Erickson, was traveling to London to join two other songwriters, Billy Davis and Roger Cook, to write and arrange several radio commercials for the Coca-Cola Company that would be recorded by a popular singing group, the New Seekers. As the plane approached Great Britain, heavy fog at London's Heathrow Airport forced it to land instead at Shannon Airport, Ireland. The irate passengers were obliged to share rooms at the one hotel available in Shannon or to sleep at the airport. Tensions and tempers ran high.

The next morning, as the passengers gathered in the airport coffee shop awaiting clearance to fly, Backer noticed that several who had been among the iratest were now laughing and sharing stories over bottles of Coke.

A Song Is Born

Backer's flight never did reach London. Heathrow Airport was still fogged in, so the passengers were redirected to Liverpool and bussed to London, arriving around midnight.

At his hotel, Backer immediately met with Billy Davis and Roger Cook, finding that they had completed one song and were working on a second as they prepared to meet the New Seekers' musical arranger the next day. Backer told them he thought they should work through the night on an idea he had had: "I could see and hear a song that treated the whole world as if it were a person—a person the singer would like to help and get to know. I'm not sure how the lyric should start, but I know the last line." With that he pulled out the paper napkin on which he had scribbled the line, "I'd like to buy the world a Coke and keep it company."

Lyrics: "I'd Like to Buy the World a Coke"

"I'd like to buy the world a home and furnish it with love,
Grow apple trees and honey bees, and snow white turtle doves.
I'd like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony,
I'd like to buy the world a Coke and keep it company.
[Repeat the last two lines and in the background]
It's the real thing, Coke is what the world wants today."

They Didn't Like It

On February 12, 1971, "I'd Like to Buy the World a Coke" was shipped to radio stations throughout the United States.

It promptly flopped. The Coca-Cola bottlers hated the ad and most refused to buy airtime for it. The few times the ad was played, the public paid no attention. Bill Backer's idea that Coke connected people appeared to be dead.

Backer persuaded McCann to convince Coca-Cola executives that the ad was still viable but needed a visual dimension. His approach succeeded: the company eventually approved more than $250,000 for filming, at the time one of the largest budgets ever devoted to a television commercial.

A Commercial Success

The television ad "I'd Like to Buy the World a Coke" was released first in Europe, where it garnered only a tepid response. It was then released in the United States in July 1971, and the response was immediate and dramatic. By November of that year, Coca-Cola and its bottlers had received more than 100,000 letters about the ad. At that time the demand for the song was so great that many people were calling radio stations and asking them to play the commercial.

"I'd Like to Buy the World a Coke" has had a lasting connection with the viewing public. Advertising surveys consistently identify it as one of the best commercials of all time, and the sheet music continues to sell more than 30 years after the song was written.