Lessons from Coca-Cola

I’ve been doing a lot of reading this year. Mostly I’ve been finding books at the library, but I also decided it might be time to actually read some of the books on my book shelves. We had a bit of a used book addiction when we were first married and amassed quite a library of books that we had no hope of ever getting around to reading. Though if my reading habits of this year keep pace for a while, I could get there.

Anyway, one of the books I picked up cheap a while ago was For God, Country and Coca-Cola: The Unauthorized History of the Great American Soft Drink and the Company That Makes It. The title’s a mouthful and so was the book (up until that point I’d been reading two to three books a week—it took me two and half weeks just to get through this book), but it did offer some engaging insights into the history of a an American icon.

A few interesting moments from Coke’s history:

  • The initial Coca-Cola business involved selling syrup to soda fountains that added the carbonated water and ultimately mixed the drink. The company was not interested in bottling Coke and selling it in bottles or cans at the grocery store, to the point that when enterprising and persistent bottlers came to Coke, the company practically gave away the bottling franchise in a perpetual contract that would cause them headaches for decades to come. As you can imagine, the bottling business soon surpassed soda fountains.
  • The familiar Coca-Cola bottle was developed and trademarked as a way to discourage imitators who kept trying to borrow everything distinctive about Coke–the red color, the diamond-shaped label, the scripted font and even the words “coca” and “cola”. While the company’s efforts to trademark each of these components met with some limited success, trademarking the bottle was a brilliant and effective move, cutting off the imitators.
  • During World War II, Coca-Cola was considered vital to the war effort as a morale booster to the troops. So much so that Coca-Cola men were given technical observer status and Coke and the Army partnered to build bottling plants behind the advancing Allied troops, all to keep the Coke flowing to the men in uniform.
  • While Coke adamantly refused to develop other drinks until the 1950s and 60s, Fanta was developed during World War II by the German branch of Coca-Cola that was nationalized by the Nazis. The drink was created to fill the gap left by sugar shortages and take advantage of what scarce resources were available, namely fruit.
  • Coca-Cola had at least three opportunities to outright buy Pepsi Cola and shut down their primary competitor (a tactic they employed on other occasions). They never did. While this seems like an enormous mistake, it’s likely some other competitor would have filled Pepsi’s shoes. Also, the rivalry with Pepsi is credited with spurring the company on to greater creative heights.
  • The New Coke debacle of the 1980s when the company dared to change the formula of America’s soft drink gets detailed treatment. While the new formula seemed like a sure success, beating both Pepsi and old Coke in blind taste tests, the company didn’t pay attention to its own research that said Coke drinkers hated change.

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