Coca Cola Branding through the ages

Dr John Stith Pemberton - Gave birth to Coca Cola and started the Cola Wars
Dr John Stith Pemberton – Gave birth to Coca Cola and started the Cola Wars

On May 8th 1886, a Dr John Stith Pemberton, a pharmacist, gave birth to the Cola Wars when he made a new syrup for the original Coca Cola and sold it down the road at Jacobs pharmacy. It was many years before it became the enormously powerful brand it is today.

What is one of the most interesting points for me however is that the logo element was actually produced by his bookkeeper who thought he could see something in the proximity of the two C’s and with his own scripted handwriting, created the logo for use in the Atlanta Journal to invite the citizens to try their new refreshing beverage. As you can see, this ‘logo’ is almost the same as the one we see today.

Meanwhile in 1898, over in New Bern, North Carolina, Pepsi was invented by another pharmacist Caleb Bradham. It was originally launched as Brad’s drink, but later became Pepsi Cola, named after the two main ingredients of Pepsin, the digestive enzyme and Kola nuts. Again it was aimed at a market looking for a refreshing drink that had some beneficial effects. The logos at this point are strikingly similar, to the point of Pepsi’s looking remarkably like a copy of Coke’s.

But around about here, their stories seem to split. Coca Cola stuck to their mission and continued to modernise to reflect the needs and desires of the era by changing the context of their traditional logo. Pepsi on the other hand, tried to modernise by constantly changing the logo and the context.

Pepsi and Coke logos throughout their history
Pepsi and Coke logos throughout their history

In the 1980’s, during the time of Roger Enrico’s stewardship, Pepsi became convinced that their difference was their taste, spending the next ten years promoting just this one point and may even have been the reason that Coke, changed their recipe to one of their few historical mistakes that is ‘New Coke’. You can read a bit more about this here.

But by constantly trying to change everything about their product to appeal to become the choice of the (next) new generation, Pepsi effectively created a continual churn of their existing customers. The Pepsi logo that seems most relevant to me is the one from 1973 and the one for my kids will probably become the one from 2005.

The lesson here is simple. Coca Cola are the market leader and have been throughout their history. They have done this by continuing to build on their original values. The logo has evolved, but never changed so radically that it will lose its connection with the previous generation. Because of this brand continuity, Coca Cola will always mean something similar to each of us.

If you blind taste test Cola from Aldi at £0.25 per bottle and compare it to Coke at £1.09 per bottle, they are not that different, so like I said with the branding of cigarettes, it has to be to do with the brand that is the difference, or we would always buy the cheaper alternative. We don’t though, because the branded values dribble down on us and give us a bit of their magic.

Branding is not about logos, it’s about the consistent delivery of values to allow you to gain a feeling or emotion from it. The logo is only the symbol to show you have arrived at that branded experience.

The logo is therefore not the most important element of any brand, it’s the continual reinforcement of those values.

Pepsi’s mistake has been that by constantly changing the logo, they have changed the symbol of arrival.

As such, every time they change it, they create a level of uncertainty in a potential customer, rather like going into a pub or office you don’t know, that it may not be to your taste. You will naturally ask yourself ‘Will it be the Pepsi I know? Or have they changed it to make it more relevant to a new more exciting and younger audience? Will I look silly if I drink it? My very own equivalent of dad dancing in the wrong room.

Changing logos is a mistake, that Pepsi have practiced for year after year after year. For me, this is why they will always be trying to follow Coca Cola’s lead.


It would appear from new information that my previous chart showing the branding of Pepsi v. Coke through the ages was wrong. Shock Horror, they have actually changed the logo over the years. Not much, but still amazingly consistent considering the length of time.

Thanks to Under Consideration for doing all the hard work.

Coke and Pepsi logos through the years
Coke and Pepsi logos through the years

Update 21 April 2016

It’s been announced that Coca Cola are undergoing a radical new look and feel again.  What is really interesting to me in this is that their idea of a radical rethink is to move some of the colouring around on their trademark bottles and cans. They are still leaving the logo element of the brand almost completely untouched as they have done throughout their entire history.

Coke updated bottles April 2106
Coke updated cans April 2016

6 thoughts on “Coca Cola Branding through the ages

  1. I’ve been following your blog for some time now and I have to say your posts on well known brands and how the fundamentals, theory and practice of “branding” apply across the board are very powerful indeed. As with many things in this world, I often wonder how the “big guns” sometimes see themselves as somehow “above” these laws that students of branding are taught over the years, but that the brands that seem to win all the races always seem to be the ones who appreciate the value of good branding.

    1. Thanks Rob, Very kind of you to say so. But yes, I agree that sticking to the rules of branding would be a far more sensible practice for many brand owners and allow them long term growth, rather than stumbling from rebrand to rebrand.

  2. Pepsi’s issues are cultural. The company’s tendency towards revolution extends through their other brands such as Tropicana and Gatorade (both admitted branding failures).

    Conversely, Coke’s approach is evolutionary. If one looks closely at the Coca~Cola logo, you can see that very minor changes are made approximately every six months. However, these changes are slight and simple (e.g.: 1% bolder, .5° more Italic). These changes are only visible over the long term. The changes themselves are designed so that the brand’s identity always looks the way we remember it, and yet it maintains its youth and relevance. Because of this, the Coca~Cola logo is recognizable in any language. Pepsi; on the other hand, uses different colors in different countries (believe it or not they use RED in China).

    Coke’s approach is simply “Classic.”

    Great post John.


    Mark Gallagher
    Brand Expressionist®

    1. Thanks Mark.

      The other brands that spring to mind which allow a slow a sensible evolution are Budweiser and Mars. Both are incredibly strong brands and will be with us for many years to come.

      Tweaking for new media challenges and printing processes is sensible and logical. Throwing all your heritage out like Pepsi are doing is just plain daft and short termist.

      Cheers. Off or a Coke. John

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