Columbus helped make Coke’s success ‘the real thing’

tchitwood@ledger-enquirer.comMarch 27, 2011 

Today it costs 15 times what it did just decades ago, yet it’s still the most popular soft drink in the world.

And with Coca-Cola this year marking the 125th anniversary of its creation by Columbus native John Pemberton, the company’s historian came here last week to talk about all that Columbus has contributed to Coke.

It was an epic tale full of fizz and zest, and whether it began here in Columbus or in Atlanta was not at issue.

Phil Mooney, Coca-Cola’s director of heritage communications, gave Columbus the credit, saying Coke was created here and carried to Atlanta, from whence it spread around the world, today sold in every country except Cuba, North Korea and Myanmar.

Coke is so universal few can imagine how novel it was when Pemberton introduced it as a fountain drink in Atlanta on May 8, 1886.

It was an era when most drinks were based on fruit or herb formulas: orange, raspberry, root beer, sarsparilla. Coca-Cola was unique, and certain aspects of it were set from the beginning.

Some believe Pemberton developed the formula here in Columbus before he moved to Atlanta after the Civil War.

The original brand has endured as well: Pemberton had a bookkeeper, Frank Robinson, who wrote the drink’s name in the flowing script The Coca-Cola Company still considers its signature.

What was not immediately apparent was the drink’s potential for profit. Pemberton was a notable apothecary, but not a good businessman. When the druggist started selling the drinks, he sold them for less than his costs to make them, so he lost money, Mooney said. To stay in business, he sold shares to other Atlanta pharmacists, among them Asa Candler.

Pemberton died in 1888, about 18 months after his drink hit the market.

The Candler era

Candler spent $2,500 to get all Coke’s assets, and in 1899 franchised a bottling system, selling the rights for $1 to some partners from Chattanooga. Critics thought that a mistake, but it worked: The bottlers absorbed all the start-up costs and continuing overhead, but still bought their syrup from Candler.

Candler invested in marketing. He so widely distributed coupons for free samples that one of every 10 Americans in the 1890s is estimated to have got one. He used color advertising at a time when most was black and white. He put the brand on serving trays, calendars, store equipment, anything to keep Coke on people’s minds.

In 1915, Coke underwent another change that remains part of its brand today -- the contoured bottle that became an icon. Before that, Coca-Cola bottles were straight-sided, as were those for beer and other drinks. Copycat colas had the same look.

With its classic bottle, Coke became a drink you could find in the dark, just by feeling for it, said Mooney, who spoke to more than 400 people gathered Thursday for the Historic Columbus Foundation’s “Celebrate Columbus” fundraiser at the St. Luke Ministry Center.

In 1919, Candler sold the company to a consortium of investors for $25 million. They were led by Columbus native Ernest Woodruff and his good friend, Columbus businessman W.C. Bradley, who put up $4 million.

The Woodruff boom

Woodruff, whose father had run Columbus’ Empire Flour Mills during the Civil War, had moved to Atlanta in 1894 and headed the Trust Company Bank.

Coke’s prospects then were not so grand. World War I had caused a sugar shortage, and the Great Depression that followed dimmed everyone’s outlook.

But in 1923, another Columbus native took the helm and guided Coke across the globe -- Ernest Woodruff’s son Robert.

As company president, he set a business strategy that would endure for 60 years, rebuilding the market. He formed an export corporation in 1926 and in four years was distributing Coke in 20 countries.

Coke became one of the earliest sponsors of the Olympics: It was sold from kiosks in Amsterdam in 1928. The younger Woodruff introduced the six-bottle carton, the automatic fountain dispenser, the standard Coke cooler. He took Coke advertising from print to radio and to TV, and promoted it with bright neon signs.

It was under Robert Woodruff’s leadership that Coke settled on its signature red color and produced ads especially for Christmas, creating an image of Santa Claus that stuck and spread, becoming the template for the Santa Clauses that now reappear every December.

Coke millionaires

W.C. Bradley chaired the Coca-Cola board and served on it until the 1940s. His only daughter, Elizabeth, married D.A. Turner of Columbus, who served on the board from 1923 to 1980. D.A. Turner’s son Bill Turner was on the board from 1980 to 1996.

After Chattanooga and Atlanta, Columbus became the third city to have a Coke bottling plant, started by Columbus Roberts Sr. in 1902. Its only mode of delivery then was a wagon drawn by a single mule. By 1932, it had 12 trucks and 40 workers.

During World War II, Robert Woodruff insisted that every American in uniform anywhere be able to get a bottle of Coke for 5 cents, no matter what it cost the company. Bottling plants were established overseas to supply soldiers on the front lines. Service personnel drank an estimated 5 billion bottles during the conflict. A taste for Coke spread.

The nickel price became another notable and long-lived aspect of the brand, enduring right up until 1958. In introducing Mooney at Thursday’s event, Historic Columbus Foundation President Susan Lawhorne recalled taking six cents as a little girl to get a nickel Coke and a penny bag of peanuts, and mixing the two for a snack.

From those drinks Pemberton sold at a loss in 1886, Coca-Cola has grown into a commercial titan dominating the market, with classic Coke and Diet Coke now the No. 1 and No. 2 most popular soft drinks in the world.

It doesn’t cost a nickel anymore. About the cheapest you’ll pay for a single Coke today is 75 cents.

The company sells $1.7 billion worth every day. It has 500 brands and 3,500 products sold in 200 countries, said Mooney, 65, who has been with the company for 33 years.

Over its 125 years, Coca-Cola has made millionaires out of modest investors, and their charitable contributions and the foundations they’ve established, like Columbus’ Bradley-Turner Foundation, have re-invested millions in local communities.

The brand would not be what it is today without the creator who came from Columbus and the leaders from here who drove its commercial success. And Columbus would not be what it is today without the Coke money that came back home.

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