Brand Thinking

Iconic Brands: Coca-Cola


For the second post in the Luna series: Iconic Brands: Why Are They So Good? We are taking a look at Coca-Cola, a brand with similar strength and heritage to Guinness in the first instalment of the series but for soft drinks rather than alcohol (they won’t all be drinks, we promise!)

This is the story of how one brand become the soft drink market leader, a symbol of a nation and went on to even be endorsed by Father Christmas. The Coke brand is a great example of the many ups and downs a brand can face throughout a long history, as well as possibly the most famous brand rivalry.

Although an iconic “megabrand” now, Coca-Cola started life as a drink mixed by its founder and inventor, Dr John S Pemberton, being sold out of Jacobs pharmacy in Atlanta, Georgia. Average sales of around 9 bottles a day compares to 1.9 billion per day now! In the beginning Coke was nothing special and free bottles were given out to increase popularity. Early in the brand’s history, businessman Asa Candler bought the business gradually from Pemberton and then following his death, Asa took complete control. From this point he started work on its rapid launch into being one of the most powerful brands in the world.

Asa started this journey with the use of cheap out-of-home advertising space to gain traction as quickly as possible. Mostly in in the form of napkins, paintings on walls and on soda fountains. This early form of guerrilla marketing was cheap and rudimentary, but highly effective. It caused Coke to be so popular that it was being consumed in every state by 1895, only three years after Asa took control. From the beginning Coke used a true mass marketing strategy rather than a specifically targeted market. This creates a sense of unity under the Coke brand with the knowledge that people of all backgrounds drink Coke, making it a drink that anyone can enjoy. This mass marketing is also demonstrated well in the celebrity endorsements taken by the company including the likes of Aretha Franklin, The Supremes, Wayne Rooney, Taylor Swift… and most impressive of all, Santa Claus.

The Santa Claus Christmas campaign started in the 1920s and kicked off properly in 1931 and has made Coke become an important part of the holiday, especially seeing the Coke Lorry advertisements with Santa drinking Coke while driving the Coke Christmas lorries all covered in fairy lights. This association with Christmas is a key part of the Coke brand that helped reinforce Coke’s sales in winter when the demand from the summer heat wasn’t there.

It is often said that Coke made the modern day perception of Santa Claus and although this is not actually true (the perception we have of him now originated well before the campaign and some examples of this modern Santa can be seen even in 1906 and it is thought to originate in the 1870s) they were definitely responsible for making this image as well-known as it is today, popularising the specific version of him to the point that they might as well have invented him. The prominent usage of red in the Coca-Cola brand and for their portrayal of Santa is key because before Coke the famous old man had no consistent image and was often portrayed in green, tan and brown.

In addition to Christmas, Coke is also associated with America on a fundamental and cultural level partially because of its heritage and age on the continent. One of these decisions that made Coke a symbol of America is that the drink was made available to soldiers in WW2 as a part of their rations. This led to the drink becoming synonymous with a very patriotic time, as well as getting a generation of people to drink it as a reminder of home. After this the drink was very close to people’s hearts and led to the whole nation forming a habit of Coke drinking, with everyone who was a soldier during WW2 and all their families now being customers. This paired with the advertising around this time often being associated with traditional American imagery, led to Coke being an important part of the American identity.

The Coke Logo was one of the elements that helped to establish the brand as a powerful force with it being a potent and recognisable trio alongside the brand colours and importantly the bottle shape. The use of a cursive script font that appears almost handwritten helps to establish the heritage in the mind of the audience and almost makes the brand seem more genuine as if the name is handwritten on the bottles with love. The use of the extended accents on the C at the beginning of Coca and Cola carrying through the rest of both words also gives the logo a sense of flow and direction that helps it be so effective. This is a design that has stayed with Coke from the very beginning with John S Pemberton’s partner Frank M Robinson suggesting the two Cs of Coca-Cola because of how they look good together in any marketing communications and then writing them down in his unique script.

Another major part of the Coke branding is its use of colour and the famous red and white has been made into a recognisable Coke colour pairing across the globe. In addition to just being a Coke brand colour pairing, the Red and white also The colour itself is created by mixing three different shades of red making it very hard to copy. The origins of this are said to go back to when Coke was transported, the barrels of bottles were painted red to distinguish them from alcohol for tax purposes. Regardless of origins the colour is a vital and powerful part of the brand that make it stand out and be memorable.

The bottle itself one of Cokes strongest brand elements, with the famous contour bottle being the most recognisable in the world. This distinctive shape was originally designed to be recognisable in the dark and was originally made by the root glass company so Coke could distinguish themselves from competitors. This was a necessary step because Coke’s early success had attracted others that would often try to imitate the company’s cursive logo and name with examples including Koka-Kola or Koka-Nola. The famous contour bottle was decided on and subsequently patented to stop any further mimicry of the brand. This shape, however, has gone on to be much more than a bottle that prevents imitation, and has become a symbol of the Coke brand that is as strong as the colour or the logo.

TV ads have also played a big role for the Coke brand and through a few very popular campaigns (including the Christmas ones of course), Coke has become well known for being a formidable force in the medium. Perhaps the most well-known Coke TV ad is “Hilltop”, an ad that aired in 1971 featuring people stood on a hill singing “I’d like to buy the world a Coke”. Surprisingly, this ad started life as a radio ad that was poorly received, and only when the ad was put against the backdrop of the Italian countryside and sung by a group of people all holding Cokes did it become successful. The genius of this ad came from its ability to tap into what America was feeling at the time and its emotional appeal of harmony and togetherness that complimented the Coke brand values. Coke’s ability to communicate the brand through TV has helped Coke remain strong throughout their history.

Coke’s association with sport also contributed greatly to the brand’s identity with longstanding partnerships to the Olympics and World Cup. The partnership to the Olympics has continued for 80 years and helped with Coke’s visibility greatly and contributing to them being a global brand to this day. Coke’s partnership with FIFA was a ground-breaking event also as it marked the first time a deal had been struck between a business and an international sports authority. The FIFA partnership also helped the Coke brand expand by showing them alongside the World Cup, the Women’s World Cup, and the Youth World Cup.

Another important building block of the Coke brand was their 1955 partnership with McDonalds. This agreement between the two companies led to McDonalds selling Coke soft drinks in all McDonalds locations. A decision that was especially effective because both companies had very ambitious expansion goals in first the US and then the world that aligned very well. In addition to matching goals, both companies are seen as very American and unifying the two only strengthens this further and this allowed both companies to synergise and benefit from the fame of the others brand. This was such a good strategy that It is claimed that Coke executives used to say their countries with the best sales were “United States, Japan, Germany and McDonalds”.

It is now time to discuss the blue, white, and red elephant in the room: Pepsi. You can’t talk about the Coke brand without mentioning their biggest competitor and the global “brand war” that has raged between the two for years.

In the beginning, Pepsi was a relatively small player. They had started a few years after Coke in North Carolina and after a rough start, they quickly grew to be Coke’s biggest competitor. Pepsi started life in a similar way to Coke, being sold in pharmacies, and was originally known as “Brad’s Drink” only to then be re-branded in 1898 to Pepsi-Cola.

The Cola wars truly kicked off in 1975 with the Pepsi challenge, a PR stunt and marketing campaign from Pepsi that proved that through a blind tase trial most people preferred Pepsi on taste. This was a very powerful strategy and was mainly thanks to Pepsi’s slightly sweeter taste being more appealing over just one sip and had enough of an impact to put Coke on the back foot and take drastic action… Coke’s response was to change their formula and make “New Coke”. However, rather than helping Coke to succeed and strike back, this enraged Coke fans and was seen as a betrayal. And very quickly calls to bring the original Coke back rose to critical levels and the brand caved, bringing back the original formula. This has gone down as one of the worst business and marketing blunders in history and displays the value of emotional connections to brands, a factor that Coke’s market research failed to pick up and led to them paying a huge price. Shortly after this blunder, Coke would largely be forgiven by the public and regain popularity. This series of events would also lead to the Coke brand learning a hard but valuable lesson about the emotional value of the drink and how brands are so much more than the product.

Coca-Cola as the company beyond the drink no longer just sells one product, over time they have diversified and now sell more than 500 different drinks brands, 20 of which are notable enough to make more than a billion dollars a year. These brands include many different products/sectors and new target markets, varying from Jack Daniels to Costa Coffee and many hundreds in-between. This approach to diversification has led to Coke having an incredibly strong drinks empire while not affecting the original Coke brand.

Looking forward, the Coke brand continues to be strong and successful and because of all the factors discussed, Coke is truly one of the best examples of how a brand can transcend itself to be iconic.

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