Coca-Cola marketing: Then and now
The world’s most recognizable brand was born out of addiction.
When John Stith Pemberton sustained a sabre wound during the American Civil War, morphine eased his pain. The event also marked the beginning of a lifelong opiate addiction that Pemberton was desperate to kick for the remainder of his life.
Before his time as a soldier, Pemberton earned his medical degree at the age of 19. While he did practice medicine and surgery after he graduated, Pemberton enjoyed chemistry more than either discipline, so he opened a pharmacy in Columbus, Georgia in the 1850s.
When Pemberton returned from the war in 1865, addicted to morphine and desperate for a cure, he began experimenting with painkillers that could replace opiates. After several iterations, he invented a precursor to Coca-Cola called French Wine of Coca, which contained coca wine, kola nut extract, and damiana.
Advertised as an “intellectual beverage”, Pemberton claimed the tonic cured everything from neuralgia to impotence. What the drink actually did was combine cocaine, caffeine, and alcohol to create a lethal stimulant that encouraged binge drinking and definitely conquered fatigue.
Unfortunately, the year Pemberton released French Wine of Coca was the same year Georgia state legislators cracked down on alcohol sales as part of prohibition. Pemberton responded with a mad scramble to produce a non-alcoholic version — and that’s how Coca-Cola was invented. Pemberton’s “brain tonic” was now a syrup sold to pharmacies with soda fountains.
Even worse for Pemberton, Coca-Cola wasn’t an initial success, having sold only $50 worth of inventory in its first year. Two years after Coca-Cola’s release, Pemberton was still addicted to morphine, sick with stomach cancer, and bankrupt. Desperate for cash, Pemberton sold the rights to Coca-Cola’s formula and brand in 1888 for $1,750 — just over $50,000 in today’s currency. Pemberton died that same year.
Now, 133 years later, 94% of the world’s population recognizes the Coca-Cola brand. And it’s no wonder they do: Between 2014–2020 alone, Coca-Cola spent an annual average of $4 billion on worldwide marketing.
Keep reading to find out how aggressive brand marketing, cultural influence, and a famous war with an up-and-coming competitor fueled the machine that is Coca-Cola’s towering presence throughout the world.
A quick disclaimer: Coca-Cola is a global company with 200 brands sold in more than 200 countries. For the sake of scope and brevity, this article is limited to the marketing history of the Coca-Cola beverage in North America.
Coca-Cola brand timeline
1886: Pharmacist John Stith Pemberton invents the original Coca-Cola drink, which contains coca leaf (cocaine) and kola nuts (caffeine).
1886: Frank M. Robinson, Pemberton's bookkeeper, names Coca-Cola and creates its logo.
1886: Coca-Cola runs its first print ads, claiming to cure headaches, neuralgia, hysteria, and melancholy.
1886: Coca-Cola makes $50 in revenue.
1888: Pemberton dies of stomach cancer and sells the rights to Coca-Cola on his deathbed.
1889: American businessman Asa Griggs Candler completes his purchase of the rights to Coca-Cola’s formula and brand from Pemberton's heirs.
1890s: Candler starts a massive sampling campaign, sending free drink coupons to pharmacy soda fountain patrons.
1891: Candler begins to aggressively advertise Coca-Cola by putting its logo on everyday objects like clocks, calendars, wallets, barns, etc.
1899: Candler sells Coca-Cola’s exclusive bottling rights to two lawyers, Joseph Whitehead and Benjamin Thomas, for $1.
1902: Coca-Cola spends more than $100,000 on advertising ($3.2 million in 2021).
1903: Coca-Cola removes cocaine from its recipe amidst racist panic linking the drug to African-American crime.
1905: Coca-Cola launches its first celebrity print ad campaign with opera singer Lillian Nordica.
1910: Bottlers are selling bottled Coca-Cola across the United States, and the drink becomes accessible outside pharmacy soda fountains.
1915: Coca-Cola creates the first version of its iconic bottle as a way to differentiate itself from imitators.
1919: Coca-Cola is sold to Ernest Woodruff's Trust Company of Georgia.
1922: Coca-Cola chooses the polar bear as its mascot as part of a French advertisement.
1928: Coca-Cola sponsors the Olympics.
1931: Illustrator Haddon Sundblom creates Coca-Cola’s popularized version of Santa Claus for subsequent Christmas campaigns until 1964.
1942: Coca-Cola begins global expansion during WWII by establishing bottle distributors in European countries to serve American troops.
1950: Coca-Cola launches its first television ad on Thanksgiving Day.
1965: The Supremes adapt their hit single “Baby Love” for a Coca-Cola ad.
1971: Coca-Cola launches its famous “Hilltop” ad featuring The New Seeker's track, “I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing”, which becomes synonymous with Coke.
1975: The modern Cola Wars pick up steam with the Pepsi Challenge, a blind taste test against Coke.
1979–80: Coca-Cola’s “Hey Kid, Catch!” MLB playoffs/Super Bowl ad featuring Mean Joe Greene is considered one of the best ads of all time.
1982: Coca-Cola launches Diet Coke as part of the Cola Wars against Pepsi.
1985: Coca-Cola launches New Coke as a response to failed taste tests against Pepsi; the product fails.
1985: Coca-Cola relaunches its product as Coca-Cola Classic as course correction after the failure of New Coke.
1993: Coca-Cola launches its first television ad featuring polar bears, the company’s mascot.
1993: Coca-Cola launches its “Always Coca-Cola” campaign to capture the attention of a younger audience.
2012: Coca-Cola expands on its polar bear ads with a Super Bowl ad, encouraging viewers to watch the polar bears react to the football game online in real time.
2014: Coca-Cola launches its “Share a Coke” campaign with names on bottles after a pilot in Australia is successful.
2016: Coca-Cola partners with Selena Gomez to produce the most popular influencer ad of its time.
2017: Coca-Cola launches sustainability marketing campaigns, perceived by many as greenwashing.
2021: Coca-Cola cuts its portfolio of brands in half for better focus after the pandemic.
Early Coca-Cola mass advertising: Be everywhere on everything
When American businessman Asa Griggs Candler completed his purchase of Coca-Cola from Pemberton in 1889, he set about plastering the Coca-Cola logo on any household object he could find.
With an initial marketing budget of $11,000 ($330,000+ today), Candler launched a three-pronged brand awareness strategy for Coca-Cola: object branding (early swag), print advertising, and mass sampling.
Candler printed Coca-Cola’s logo on the household objects people looked at every day: clocks, calendars, napkins, pencils, pocket mirrors, wallets, etc. If you needed it for your home, Candler wanted it to remind you of Coca-Cola.
The strategy worked so well because it was new. The concept of “company swag” hadn’t yet been invented, and people didn’t clock items with logos on them as garish. In 1893, no one was going to call you a corporate lemming if you pulled out your wallet and it just so happened to have a Coca-Cola logo on it.
In the late 1800s, it was also trendy to paint advertisements on buildings and barns. (Fun fact: The artists who painted these advertisements were called “wall dogs”.) In 1895, Candler hired an army of artists to paint the Coca-Cola logo on buildings and barns across the country, a program that continued until the 1950s. To this day, Coca-Cola barns are considered American historical relics.
Candler knew, however, that brand recognition wouldn’t be enough. When he himself was first approached to buy Coca-Cola, he wasn’t interested — until he tried it. After that first sip, Candler was confident people would love the drink, if only he could get it into their mouths.
As an expansion of Pemberton’s failed sampling campaign, Candler wrote to pharmacies and asked for the addresses of their top 50 soda fountain customers. (Privacy laws and the FTC wouldn’t be established until years later.) He sent everyone on the list coupons for a free Coca-Cola drink at their local soda fountain so they would be forced to ask for it by name.
Between 1886 and 1914, as part of the first mass coupon campaign in history, one in 10 Cokes were given away for free. According to Frederick Allen, author of Secret Formula, “Asa Candler would howl with anguish at the amount of Coca-Cola he was giving away for free. He was a tight-fisted fellow.”
But the campaign paid off. By the turn of the century, Candler had increased Coca-Cola’s profits by 11,000 times as much as it was making in 1886.
Coca-Cola’s Santa Claus: Saint Nick, but jolly
Coca-Cola didn’t invent Santa Claus—but they did gift him witha glow up.
The Santa Claus we know now is a combination of Turkey’s Saint Nicholas, England’s Father Christmas, and the Dutch legend of Sinterklaas. Depictions of Santa Claus vary by culture and era, but in North America it’s Father Christmas from late-Victorian England who brings presents to children, as it was this version of Santa that was exported to the United States.
Coca-Cola’s first Christmas ads ran in the 1920s in magazines like The Saturday Evening Post, featuring a paltry version of Santa Claus that looked more tired behind the eyes than jolly. In 1930, Coca-Cola went back to the drawing board and hired artist Fred Mizen to paint a department store Santa drinking a Coke at a soda fountain while surrounded by children. The iteration was better by leaps and bounds, but it still wasn’t quite the Santa Claus we associate with Coca-Cola now.
The following year, Coca-Cola struck gold with illustrator Haddon Sundblom. Taking inspiration from Clement Clark Moore’s famous 1822 poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (also known as “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas”), Sundblom fixed his mind’s eye on one feature: jolly.
Sundblom’s Santa Claus is the one children flock to as a warm, approachable man with rosy cheeks and a twinkle in his eye. From 1931 to 1964, Sundblom painted so many versions of the iconic figure that people began to think Coca-Cola invented Santa Claus. Rumors of his red coat as a symbol of Coca-Cola’s brand began to circulate, and people wrote impassioned letters to the company about any and all details of that year’s Claus depiction — including concern for Mrs. Claus when Sundblom forgot to paint his wedding ring one year.
We’ll never know the exact return-on-investment Coca-Cola saw from its Santa Claus takeover in popular culture. But for a company who created its first international arm in 1926 only to be sold in 100 countries by the late 1950s, the move to become synonymous with one of the most recognizable figures in the world was a smart one.
Santa Claus may look and sound different depending on your culture, but colonization efforts by countries with Judeo-Christian origins solidified the international recognition of Santa — and Coca-Cola seized the opportunity to benefit from the legend’s sweeping sleigh ride across the globe.
Buying the world a Coke … for $250,000
Long before Mad Men aired it as part of their series finale, Coca-Cola’s “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke” was the song Americans couldn’t get out of their heads.
Aired as a radio jingle before it was shot for TV, the song was written by Bill Backer, creative director of ad agency McCann. In January 1971, the ad man was en route to London when a dense fog forced his place to land in Ireland. Stranded with other passengers in the airport, Backer noticed them bonding over their shared misfortune — while drinking Coke.
In an interview with Slate, the now-deceased Backer said, “There’s a need all over the world for some kind of signal that says: Let’s go have a cup of coffee, let’s go have a coke. If you want to communicate with people, there’s nothing better than some simple liquid. It performs a little tiny service.”
In February 1971, the song hit radio stations and gained popularity as people began to request it just as they would any other song. That same year, a version by the New Seekers peaked at number seven on the Billboard Hot 100. To get more mileage out of the popular jingle, Backer created the TV commercial.
With 500 people so ethnically diverse it would put a tech company’s website to shame, Backer shot the commercial for $150,000 over its initial $100,000 budget due to rain and other delays. In exchange for the extra cash, Coca-Cola received 100,000 letters about the ad after it was released. No clicks-to-buy, but a good sign of success nonetheless.
Some people attribute the ad’s success to its cultural relevance. In 1971, the United States was six years into the Vietnam War and peace movements were in full effect. An idealistic consumer may have welcomed the idea of uniting the world and its diverse peoples through a show of camaraderie with Coke.
But if you compare the ad to 2017’s Kendall Jenner-Pepsi disaster, in which the white, wealthy celebrity solves racist police brutality with a can of Pepsi, you’ll see how our collective skepticism has developed since earlier rounds of cause marketing. There’s something doubtful about millennial and gen Z enthusiasm for an ad that claims to “teach the world to sing in perfect harmony” by sharing a soft drink.
No one would blame you for wishing it could be so, however.
Coke vs. Pepsi: The conflict of our time
Rewind to the 1890s: Caleb Bradham, also a pharmacist, invented his own cola beverage and called it “Brad’s Drink”. The name wasn’t exactly catchy, so he rebranded under “Pepsi-Cola” in 1898 because the drink was advertised to relieve dyspepsia — indigestion.
For decades, Coca-Cola and Pepsi co-existed in perfect harmony. Well, that’s not entirely true — Pepsi declared bankruptcy in 1923 and flapped about for years as Coca-Cola made several attempts to purchase them, all declined. But finally, between 1936–1938, Pepsi-Cola’s profits doubled, a small sign of success.
Pepsi grew their market share by targeting audiences most brands ignored, including the Black community in the 1940s. But it wouldn’t be until 1975 that Pepsi felt it had enough brand clout to take on its final boss: Coca-Cola.
That year Pepsi launched the “Pepsi Challenge”, a massive campaign to publicize blind taste tests between Coca-Cola and Pepsi. Over the next few years, a slew of ads and events would all show the same thing: Pepsi tasted better than Coca-Cola. When you dig deeper, Pepsi was also saying something else: You’re being duped by brand marketing if you’re drinking Coke.
The message was devastating because it was true. David Greising, author of I'd Like the World to Buy a Coke, writes that internal studies at Coca-Cola “confirmed what the Pepsi Challenge was showing, which is that if you just look at the taste of the beverage, consumers preferred Pepsi,” which had a “sweeter, more syrupy flavor.”
When the results of those studies came in, Coca-Cola freaked out. Coke still had market share over Pepsi, but they could see it slipping (down 2.5% between 1980–1984)) and they acted fast. In 1982 they released Diet Coke, a calorie-free version of their beloved drink. Then, in 1985, they made what looked like a costly mistake in the short term: Coca-Cola changed their age-old recipe and released “New Coke”.
People hated it — in follow-ups surveys, only 13% of people said they liked New Coke. Coca-Cola’s loyal customer base felt betrayed; a brand they associated with core American identity changed what many people loved.
The backlash was so severe Coca-Cola dropped New Coke after less than three months and rebranded their original recipe as Coca-Cola Classic — their way of saying, “Please don’t leave us, we messed up and now we’re fixing it.”
The thing is, it worked. Coca-Cola has had very few marketing blunders over the years, and while many do call New Coke one of the worst product fails of this century, the mistake led to Coca-Cola’s resurgence as one of the most discussed brands of the 80s. While Pepsi did manage to secure the top spot for market share in the soft drink category for a short spell, Coca-Cola held strong with 32.3% to Pepsi’s 24.8% in 1985.
In 2019, Coca-Cola had 43.7% of the carbonated soft drink market while PepsiCo had 24.1%. That same year, Coca-Cola re-released New Coke as part of a partnership with the hit show Stranger Things, which included a scene from 1985 showing one of its characters drinking New Coke to the disgust of his friends.
Check out this fun taste test from someone who remembers the original 1985 fiasco:
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Share a Coke: Personalization and a pivot to social
In 2011, Coca-Cola was still relying on TV ads and traditional media channels, which had served them well over their 125-year history. Then in Australia, they stumbled into a marketing strategy that was so fit for social media it would change the future of marketing at the company.
In an effort to capture the attention of young people in Australia, Coca-Cola’s South Pacific division released a carte blanche creative brief to their advertising partners: “That idea you’ve got tucked away that you’ve always wanted to do for Coke? Now’s the time for that idea.”
The result was a massive effort to print 150 names on redesigned bottles and cans of Coke with one overall message: “Share a Coke with someone you know.” Coca-Cola knew they were only capturing 42% of the country’s first names, so they made sure the message was about the people you knew, not yourself.
As part of the campaign’s digital experience, Coca-Cola also allowed people to send virtual Cokes to each other on Facebook, a move that is either eyeroll-inducing or fit for today’s NFT discourse.
After the campaign launched, young adult Coke consumption in Australia increased by 7% while generating more than 18 million media impressions. In 2013, Coca-Cola’s Facebook page likes grew by 39%, an important metric at the time that was mostly driven by user-generated content (before UGC was ubiquitous).
After “Share a Coke” proved its success in Australia, Coke expanded it to New Zealand, then Asia, then Europe, then North America. Years later, in 2018, Coca-Cola launched this Share a Coke ad in India that is surprisingly relatable to young people: a Coke as a bribe from parent to child, in exchange for connection on social media.
The campaign has since become the top example marketers use when they’re trying to explain the importance of personalization to others who might not “get” it. Coca-Cola has since expanded on their commitment to personalization with their 2021 “Open to Better” campaign, which capitalizes on social media self-help trends by including inspiring resolutions on cans instead of names. Find the line that speaks to you at that moment, and drink up.
Coca-Cola’s future: Radical change needs to happen
In 2021, Coca-Cola cut their portfolio from 400 brands to 200. The pandemic reduced out-of-home drinking, and the company is choosing to focus on stronger brands that may be more resilient to post-pandemic fluctuations.
But larger, long-term challenges lie ahead for Coca-Cola. While the company began sustainability marketing efforts in 2017, climate activists and environmental organizations aren’t buying it. In June 2021, Earth Island Institute sued Coca-Cola for what it describes as deceptive sustainability marketing “despite being one of the largest contributors to plastic pollution in the world.”
Coca-Cola is indeed the largest polluter among all beverage companies. Despite launching several recycling initiatives such as its “Every Bottle Back” and a “World Without Waste” campaigns — which claim that its plastic bottles and caps are 100% recyclable — Coca-Cola is the world’s leading plastic waste producer, using 200,000 plastic bottles per minute and generating significant CO2 emissions in the production process.
It’s the stuff a recycling program just won’t fix. When you depend on the consumer to recycle bottles, only 30% are indeed recycled. It’s this harsh reality that renders recycling programs ineffective — and people are starting to catch on.
As consumers become more educated about climate change, CO2 emissions, and the mechanisms with which they’re produced, Coca-Cola will find itself in an uncomfortable position. Plastic bottles as waste sits at the most basic level of knowledge when it comes to “bad” behavior for the climate. Without serious innovations in packaging, shipping, and production, Coca-Cola may simply lose relevance among younger consumers who care about the planet’s future because they’re the ones who need to live in it.
The next ten years will be the most interesting in Coca-Cola’s squeaky clean marketing track record thus far. And to be fair, the solution may indeed be higher than marketing’s pay grade. In the meantime, we’re sure many more of Coca-Cola’s Christmas campaigns will keep us feeling warm and fuzzy inside.
Honorable mentions: Coca-Cola’s most memorable ads
Coca-Cola is one of the most heavily advertised brands of all time. Here’s a round up of Coca-Cola’s best ads we couldn’t dive into because we would have lost you a long time ago if we had. Enjoy the nostalgia trip!
Coca-Cola’s first television commercial, 1950
Coca-Cola’s collaboration with The Supremes, 1965
Coca-Cola collaboration with football player “Mean” Joe Greene, 1979
“Always Coca-Cola” launch, 1993
Coca-Cola’s first polar bear commercial (“Always Coca-Cola), 1993
Coca-Cola Super Bowl polar bear commercial, 2012
Instagram collaboration with Selena Gomez, 2016
Fun fact: Coca-Cola paid Selena Gomez $550,000 for the Instagram post—the most expensive sponsored post at the time. Football star Cristiano Ronaldo has since become the most expensive Instagrammer in the world, pulling in $1.6 million per sponsored post.