Coca-Cola: 125 Years

At 125 Years Old, Coke's Story Is Still Being Written

After Winning Cola Wars, Company Aims to Double Revenue in 10 Years and Continue History of Breaking Marketing Ground

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Coca-Cola has a rich history, 125 years filled with intrigue and innovation, success and failure. But, above all, Coke's story is a marketing story -- one that 's still evolving.

The company tapped its first agency of record in 1906 and boasted an unheard of million dollar ad budget just five years later. Today it spends $2.9 billion globally on advertising across 206 markets. Celebrities and athletes were cast in ads as early as the turn of the century -- a tradition that continues. It's been at the forefront of testing new media formats, and today, Coca-Cola is both a brand and a medium.

In short, Coke has come a long way since its founding by John Pemberton, an Atlanta pharmacist in 1886. But what's remarkable is the foresight of those giants that built the brand: Asa Candler acknowledged the importance of branded merchandise and couponing in the late 1800s; Robert Woodruff envisioned Coca-Cola as a global brand in the 1920s; Steve Heyer declared that "Coca-Cola isn't a drink. It's an idea" and envisioned "an era of co-creation" in the earlier part of this decade.

Joe Tripodi, CMO and Chief Commercial Officer of Coca-Cola
Joe Tripodi, CMO and Chief Commercial Officer of Coca-Cola

So where does it go from here? Having moved well beyond the cola wars and determined to boldly double revenue in 10 years, Coke is positioning itself as the embodiment of happiness. "If you're able to own that emotion in people's mindspace, that 's a very powerful thing," said Chief Marketing and Commercial Officer Joe Tripodi. "It's fertile ground. They'll look back and say it was a very smart place to own."

WINNING THE COLA WARS
So far, it's looking like a pretty good bet. Coca-Cola reported worldwide volume growth of 6% in the first quarter, with earnings jumping 18%. Volume at brand Coca-Cola grew 3% during the quarter. And in 2010, brand Coke maintained its No. 1 ranking, while Diet Coke surpassed Pepsi to become the No. 2 soft drink in the country, according to Beverage Digest. While Pepsi famously declared that it had won the cola wars amid the 1985 New Coke debacle, Coke is firmly on top now.

The company is coalescing around management's 2020 Vision, which involves doubling system revenue and more than doubling servings to some 3 billion per day. It's a daunting goal, considering it wants to do in 10 years what it took nearly 125 years to accomplish.

"We need to remain very humble and extremely hungry," said Mr. Tripodi. "We're not resting on our laurels for even one minute. The worst thing for companies is when you start believing your own press clippings."

Mr. Tripodi, however, said the idea of winning the cola wars doesn't provide the motivation it once did. "We believe strong competition makes us better and strong competitors make us better," he said. "The notion of the cola wars is less relevant. And that 's not how we rally the troops here."

Still, he said he doesn't think "the story is written on cola yet." The company sees huge opportunities to grow colas, and the business as a whole, around the world in the next decade. Teen recruitment will be particularly important, as the company follows demographic trends.

"There was a time [a decade ago] when we walked away from teen recruitment and probably lost a generation of drinkers," Mr. Tripodi said. "Parts of the world lost confidence in cola as the engine of growth. We've gotten that back in a big way. …When you look at the massive opportunity in so many huge countries in the world, that 's what energizes us and why we believe cola is still at its very early stages."

EXPERIMENTING WITH COUPONS, COLOR TV AND MENTOS
Key to success will be continuing to break new ground on the marketing front. In the fourth quarter, Mr. Tripodi says there will be a "big, powerful promotion" and "amplification of the brand as a media channel." He declined to comment further.

Early on, Coca-Cola was at the forefront of experimenting with new media channels and marketing concepts. In the 1880s, the brand was the first to introduce couponing and direct-mail campaigns, and in the early 1960s it was among the first to experiment with color TV ads. This decade it has dominated Facebook, ranking as the most-popular consumer brand, with nearly 26 million likes.

The emergence of Facebook, in particular, has led to a shift in thinking at the company. It now talks about earned, shared, owned and paid media. That shift has allowed the company to "step back and look at how we fully leverage the assets we have: the brand, properties, customer relations," said Mr. Tripodi. "We've always done paid well, but we've got to innovate on the edge. … These two new areas: earned and shared. That's where we see some dramatic growth."

It's taken some time for that conversation around earned and shared media to evolve, however. The company learned a lot from the Diet Coke-Mentos experiment in 2006, Mr. Tripodi said. A video of Mentos causing Diet Coke to shoot out of bottles in geysers went viral, leading to global news coverage. Originally the company felt the stunt didn't fit the brand's personality. But it got over it and embraced the coverage. As recently as last year, the company teamed up with the video's creators, EepyBird, for a Coke Zero Rocket Car.

Similarly, when a Coke fan page was flagged by Facebook in late 2008, the company engaged the page's owners, rather than playing hardball. In a stroke of social-media savvy, it flew the two fans to Atlanta and hashed out a plan for the page's future. At the time the page had about 3.3 million fans. Today it has nearly eight times that .

"Five, six, 10 years ago, I think the company was probably struggling with that ," Mr. Tripodi said of embracing social media and the idea that the consumer, not the company, owns the brand. "When you're managing and stewarding the most valuable brand in the world, it's a challenge."

ENVISIONING A GLOBAL BRAND
Indeed, Coca-Cola has been rated the most valuable global brand by Interbrand for more than a decade. It's an accomplishment that would have made former president and chairman Mr. Woodruff proud. One of the first declarations made by Mr. Woodruff was that "Coca-Cola wasn't constrained by American geography," said Phil Mooney, VP-heritage communications. "He felt that Coca-Cola was a global brand. As early as 1926 he formed a group dedicated to creating a business in countries outside of the U.S. So, it's not surprising that in 1928 we had our first appearance at the Olympics in Amsterdam."

More than 80 years later, Coca-Cola is still sponsoring the Olympics, and it's more global than ever. Its newly refined global approach was on display in 2008 during the Beijing Olympics, when the company embarked on a 60-country marketing blitz. Commemorative packaging rolled out in 150 countries. The effort marked the introduction of a more global approach for the brand, which has trimmed its agency roster from 82 creative shops around the world to about 30 and now aims to create campaigns that can be distributed broadly.

For example, in 2009, Coke ditched "Coke Side of Life" for the more translatable "Open Happiness." That campaign touched nearly all of Coca-Cola's 206 markets in the first half of 2009. And the most recent Christmas campaign had 90 countries adopt the entire marketing program.

"The Olympics in Beijing really said to everybody that there are a lot of similarities around the world," said Mr. Tripodi. "We want to create a culture of people getting out of their silos. One of Coke's greatest advantages is its scale. But if you have 206 markets operating in silos, you de-scale the operation. That does not mean that everything you create in headquarters gets pushed around the world. [It just means] there are opportunities for that ."

Mr. Tripodi said the company has adopted a process in which markets typically adopt 70% to 80% of a marketing program, meaning the remainder is customizable. "Everyone can find what I would consider to be the increasingly narrow differences between people," he said.

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