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

I’ve written a book called Bottled Spunk – It’s honestly about branding

Over the course of the last year or so, I wrote a book called Bottled Spunk – Its all about branding, and how it impacts, how it works and how to create your own. I haven’t yet got around to looking for a publisher, so I thought I would publish the introduction on here to see whether there was any form of market for it and to see what people’s initial reaction was.

If I get some good comments. then I’ll either publish the full text on here or go out and look for someone to help me take it to market. It’s 20,000 words and in truth has taken me about 20 years of research to get to this draft. So here goes..

1. Bottled spunk anyone?
In February 2004, worried by the success of their Rival Pepsi’s purified water product called Aquafina, Coca Cola felt they were being left out of the fast growing and extremely profitable bottled water market. So, after a great deal of studying the market, hundreds of thousands of pounds poured into research they launched Dasani Water to the UK, expecting a similar success to that which greeted its US introduction.

With this successful launch under their belt, they took the decision to recycle the marketing campaigns that had worked so well on the other side of the Atlantic. But in an incredible oversight on the language front, they directed their eager public to their US website. On the front of this was a bikini clad lady, next to a bottle of Dasani water, shaking her wet hair with the slogan ‘Can’t live without spunk’

Can't live without Spunk? Hmmmm, I think I can!
Can't live without Spunk? Hmmmm, I think I can!

The concept of ‘bottled spunk’ for the advertising and for any mainstream consumer website may not have absolutely universal appeal.

Testing potential issues with a brand name throughout the world is the work of experts, checking a slogan such as this would seem to be a fairly simple exercise – particularly with the might, budgets and brains of Coca Cola behind you. All this work and they failed to spot that in the US, spunk has a rather different meaning – and possibly taste!

Now they may have survived one mistake, but even after that rather shaky start, things still got worse.

A few weeks into the launch, The Grocer magazine happened to note that the water was taken from a commercial water supply in Sidcup, Kent that had been filtered. In effect it was nothing more than tap water. The claims were that because of their secret filtration process and adding of vitamins and minerals, it was particularly pure – even if it wasn’t actually spring water.

The proximity to Peckham could not be missed by the tabloids and they cited the similarity to the Peckham Spring Water that Dell Boy attempted to make famous in one episode of Only Fools and Horses.

Perhaps they could have survived two big mistakes?

But then, to make matters worse again, trading standards got involved to investigate their claims of purity and discovered traces of bromate – a potential carcinogenic that had been banned in some countries.

All the glossy packaging and advertising budgets in the world cannot hide a lie these days. The truth will out.

Our tap water in the UK is 99.96% clean and is the best in any developed nation in the world, according to latest OFWAT figures and costs 0.2 pence per litre. Theirs cost over £1, tasted the same, but could actually be more detrimental to your wellbeing.

When the press outed them, Coca Cola were forced to recall over 500,000 bottles and remove the product from sale only 38 days after they launched. They were left with lots of egg on their face, a redundant factory and a £7m waste of advertising money.

Worse than this, the story ran throughout most of mainland Europe, so planned launches to the lucrative markets of Germany and Spain were both shelved before they ever even began.

If it had been one thing, they still stood a chance, two and it was going to be more tricky, but with mistakes piling up around them, they were left with an impossible situation that only left them with retreat as an option.

Coca Cola are one of the most exceptional brand owners in the world and still made these mistakes by underestimating the global power of brands and the world we now live in where information is instant and worldwide. It is what economists describe as an almost perfect market. It is changing everything we do with brands and you need to work within the opportunities and restrictions it presents.

All of these mistakes could (and would) have been prevented by applying some of the simple rules that we lay down in this book.

What we’re going to show here, is how simple it is to begin to build an exceptional brand for yourself.

We’re going to show you what does and doesn’t make up a brand.

Then give you some simple examples and a step by step procedure to follow to create your own.

We’ll introduce you to the golden rules of what you can and can’t do with a brand and show you where some have taken their brands to the brink, only to save them at the last minute.

And show what some of the best (and worst) examples in the world can teach us about the strange and mysterious art of branding.