Episode 31: Coca-Cola


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Now for the article: Coca-Cola.

There is hardly a more recognizable global brand than Coca-Cola, and we all know the famous soft drink. Most Americans call it Coke. However, did you know that it was originally sold as a medicine?

In 1886, John “Doc” Pemberton, a pharmacist in Atlanta, Georgia, came up with a drink syrup formula. It contained extracts of coca leaves and kola nuts. He named it Coca-Cola, after the ingredients.

Interestingly, coca-leaf extract actually contains cocaine, which was not illegal at the time and thought to be healthy. Over the years, as the dangers of cocaine were discovered, less and less cocaine was put in the formula. And, by 1929, no cocaine was in the formula at all.

Pemberton’s bookkeeper and business partner, Frank Robinson, registered the syrup formula so no one else could produce it. He even created the famous Coca-Cola logo still used today and the first advertising slogan, “The Pause that Refreshes”.

Sales weren’t very good in the first few years. In those days, Coke and other soft drinks were sold only at soda fountains, which were sections of a drugstore where people could get soft drinks and other treats. At the soda fountain, Coca-Cola syrup was mixed with carbonated water, much like automatic soft drink machines do now. Coke wasn’t bottled until much later.

Pemberton sold parts of his business to others and then he died two years later. In 1891, a man named Asa Griggs Candler became the sole owner of the entire business, and he founded the Coca-Cola Company. Candler was a very successful business tycoon in Atlanta. He was even the mayor of the city, and many locations in Atlanta bear his name today, including parks and museums.

He was a genius marketer and applied this talent to selling Coca-Cola. He marketed it as a beverage and as a patent medicine. He claimed Coke could cure headaches and fatigue. It was a controversial move.

You see, in those days, large numbers of tonics, elixirs and medicines were advertised as cures for a vast number of ailments. These formulas, most of which did not cure anything at all, were called patent medicines. People could buy them at a drugstore without a doctor’s prescription. Today we would call them over-the-counter medications. And, in general, because of better regulations, over-the-counter medications are more effective than in the past. Candler stopped selling Coca-Cola as a patent medicine in 1898 when Congress imposed a tax on patent medicines.

Candler’s marketing of the soft drink was wildly successful and the company grew quickly. In fact, the Coca-Cola Company has a tradition of hugely successful marketing campaigns, which have had a big impact on American culture. For example, one of the advertising campaigns in 1931 first presented an image of Santa Claus in the way Americans think of him now.

Today, the Coca-Cola Company is the world’s largest beverage company. In addition to the many Coca-Cola flavors, the company owns over 500 brands, including Fanta, Dasani water and Minute Maid juices. Worldwide, over 700,000 people work for Coca-Cola in some capacity.

The corporate headquarters of Coca-Cola is still in Atlanta. Also, you can visit a museum called the World of Coca-Cola in Atlanta, too. It is sponsored by the corporation. Visitors can learn about the history of Coke and see many interactive exhibits such as meeting the Coca-Cola Polar Bear and seeing the vault where they keep the secret Coca-Cola formula.

Language note:

The phrase soft drink means a cold, sweet, carbonated drink without alcohol. There are several regional words for soft drinks in American English, including cola (for drinks that taste similar to Coca-Cola), soda, pop and the combination soda pop. In the South, some people even use the word coke to mean any soft drink, not just Coca-Cola.

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