John Pemberton, an Atlanta pharmacist, invented the drink one day in 1886 while seeking a quick headache cure. He put it on sale for 5 cents a glass in his neighborhood pharmacy. Back then, the syrup was mixed and then added to a glass of seltzer water upon purchase.
Pemberton's bookkeeper, Frank Robinson, christened the drink "Coca-Cola" and wrote the name in the distinctive script that is still used today. The name comes from the extract of coca leaves and kola nuts contained in the syrup. Eventually in 1929, the cocaine was completely removed from the formula, leaving caffeine to provide the kick.
But Pemberton wasn't a businessman and didn't understand the drink's potential. Between 1888 and 1891 he sold the company in bits and pieces to local entrepreneur Asa Griggs Candler.
In 1891, Candler completed the purchase and became Coca-Cola's first president. He traveled the country introducing pharmacists to the drink, which they sold from their counters. Candler also gave the pharmacists plenty of clocks, scales, calendars and other items laden with the Coca-Cola logo as well as coupons for customers to redeem a free glass of the drink.
Even Candler didn't fully appreciate the brand's potential. In 1899, not realizing that customers might want to take their Coke with them, he sold the bottling rights to two Chattanooga, Tennessee lawyers for a dollar. They soon built a thriving bottling business, in turn selling the rights to other entrepreneurs around the country. In 1916, the Root Glass Company created the well-known curved bottle that immediately differentiated Coca-Cola from the many imitators that had sprung up, and Coca-Cola smartly obtained a patent for the design.
The bottling business grew, with 1,000 bottlers by 1920 as the brand expanded into Cuba, France, Puerto Rico and other territories. In 1918, Candler sold the company to Ernest Woodruff, whose son Robert became president in 1923. Robert Woodruff was the man responsible for the rapid expansion of the Coke brand throughout the world -- during World War II, he decreed "every man in uniform gets a bottle of Coca-Cola for 5 cents, wherever he is, and whatever it costs the company."
The Coca-Cola company didn't earn huge profits from the venture, but it did earn something far more valuable: extensive penetration into Europe, thanks to the American G.I.s who carried the drink with them. By the end of the war, thousands of Europeans had been exposed to the soft drink, and by 1960 the number of countries with Coca-Cola bottling plants had doubled.
Coke, as it was less formally called (the company trademarked the nickname in 1962), enjoyed a market share in excess of 60 percent at the end of World War II, but increased competition from other drinks began to erode the company's dominance. Part of this was Coca-Cola's own doing — during the 1960s, it introduced new drinks Sprite, TAB, and Fresca, and in 1982 the incredibly popular Diet Coke debuted — but the increasing success of Pepsi-Cola, which first appeared in 1898, eventually gave the company reason for concern. It's impossible to say who fired the first volley, but during the 1970s and 1980s, the so-called "cola wars" intensified.
Despite the success of the 1971 ad campaign "I'd like to buy the world a Coke," which was filmed on a hilltop in Italy and showcased the brand's worldwide appeal, Coke continued to lose market share to Pepsi, leading CEO Roberto C. Goizueta to commit one of the largest blunders in corporate history: the 1985 introduction of New Coke. While the new formulation was well liked in preliminary taste tests, consumers across the country reacted strongly and negatively to the news that New Coke would replace the original drink.
Coke's US market share was under 24 percent at the time, and sales plummeted as loyal customers rejected New Coke. Not quite three months after he made the mistake, Goizueta rectified it with the re-introduction of the original Coke under the name "Coke Classic." At the time he noted: "The simple fact is that all the time and money and skill poured into consumer research on the new Coca-Cola could not measure or reveal the deep and abiding emotional attachment to original Coca-Cola felt by so many people."
New Coke quickly faded away, but not completely; it's now known as Coke II and is still sold in a few markets around the world. Pepsi, which had briefly stolen the number one spot from Coke, fell back to number two, but the cola wars were not over. The rivalry between the two companies intensified throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Both companies fought over official sponsorship deals for sporting events and sports teams, as well exclusive deals that would shut the other brand out of certain restaurants and other venues. In 2001, the US market share battle stood at 31.6 percent for Pepsi and 43.7 percent for Coke.
Today, Coca-Cola spends more money on global sports sponsorships than Pepsi or any other company, with total worldwide expenditures in excess of US$ 1 billion a year. Coke sponsored the 2002 World Cup and will serve in that capacity again for the 2006 tournament, and it has sponsored the Olympics since 1928. In 1998, the company signed a landmark 100-year deal for Sprite to be the official soft drink of the National Basketball Association. Earlier this year, though, it lost official sponsorship of the American National Football League to Pepsi, a coup that still embarrasses company executives.
The company currently distributes approximately 300 brands of drinks around the world, including Sprite, TAB, Fresca, Diet Coke, Surge, PowerAde (Surge and PowerAde are the official soft and sports drinks, respectively, of the American National Hockey League), Barq's, Dasani bottled water, the Minute Maid line of fruit drinks, and Mr. Pibb. The popular variant Cherry Coke was introduced in 1985, and in 2002 Vanilla Coke hit store shelves, although public reaction to the new flavor is currently mixed.
Some may believe that the company's future is mixed as well — witness the numerous press reports recently, asking in various ways whether Coke has lost its fizz — but the common perception seems to be: if the company can survive the New Coke fiasco, it can survive just about anything. With the name "Coke" practically synonymous with "cola drink," one can't imagine the brand's name recognition going flat anytime soon. The cola wars will never end, but Coke is far too entrenched in the public's consciousness to ever settle for less than number two in the market share battle.