Born in the USA: Coca-Cola, the brand that turned Christmas red
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Born in the USA: Coca-Cola, the brand that turned Christmas red

Coca Cola

What marks the start of the festive period for you?

Is it the smell of cinnamon, or twinkling of fairy lights? Is it your co-workers constantly singing the same 5 festive songs along with the radio throughout their 9-to-5 shifts? Or, could it be the sight of that very-first Coca Cola Christmas advert?

‘Tis the season here at Fabrik, and that means we’re going to be looking at the brand that always seems to come to mind when getting into the holiday spirit. For over 100 years, the Coca Cola brand has been hard at work, creating an identity that’s built on community, happiness, and of course, the Christmas season.

From a cocaine-infused elixir with practically no selling power in 1886 to a sugar-laden drink capable of changing the world, Coca Cola is perhaps one of the most iconic brands in history. It’s not just a beacon of American culture, but a company that’s completely changed the landscape for marketers and branding experts around the world.

This holiday season, we’re going to be celebrating the inspiration and innovation of Coke over the years and exploring why 1.9 billion servings of this simple drink are now served throughout 200 countries every day.

Here’s to a business that’s truly refreshing.

Coca Cola
Credit: Wally Gobetz

The Coca Cola history: Where Coke began

The Coca Cola history officially began in 1886. This was when a pharmacist in Atlanta called Dr. John S. Pemberton began experimenting with a unique soft-drink he could sell at soda fountains.

The Coca Cola syrup was mixed with carbonated water at a local pharmacy and deemed “excellent” by everyone who tasted it. Yet, Pemberton struggled to achieve any measurable success, because he had no real marketing plan to work with.

Frank M. Robinson, Pemberton’s bookkeeper, named the beverage “Coca Cola”, and designed the original trademarked script for the logo, and the drink was sold for 5 cents a glass. Just before his death, Pemberton sold segments of his business off to various people, including “Asa G. Candler”, a man who was able to take the Coca Cola brand out of Atlanta for the first time.

Coca Cola
Credit: Coca-Cola Company, Wired

The first marketing efforts embraced by the Coke brand were based around offering customers coupons for a free sample of the drink. This was a pretty innovative technique back then when vouchers were less of a common occurrence. Moving forward to the 1970s, the Coca Cola marketing team had begun experimenting with new advertising ideas, designed to promote a brand personality fuelled by fun and happiness.

Even if you weren’t around for the original marketing campaigns, there’s a good chance you’ve heard the 1971 Hilltop singers performing “I’d Like to Buy a World a Coke”, or the “Have a Coke and a Smile” advertisement created in 1979. By the 1980s, new memorable slogans had emerged around the Coke brand, including messages like “Can’t Beat the Feeling”. Eventually, in 1993, the company came up with the “Always Coca-Cola” tagline, supported by a series of ads featuring animated polar bears.

Perhaps the most compelling thing to remember about Coca Cola’s history is that despite how the market has changed over the years, the main values and focus of the company has remained the same. For decades, Coke was well-ahead of its time in the marketing space, because it knew that if it wanted to earn the attention and affinity of their audience, it needed to sell not just a product, but an experience.

By linking Cokes brand voice to the concept of happiness, and embracing ideals like community, joy, and inclusion, The Coca Cola company created a truly timeless brand with the power to survive the decades.

Holidays are coming: The story of a Coca Cola Christmas

Of course, it’s hard to talk about Coca Cola branding without diving into a story about the company’s festive connections. Today, a lot of people still believe that Coke is responsible for inventing the Santa Claus we know today – dressing them in their trademark red and white colours to push their own brand awareness strategies.

While Coke and Christmas might go hand-in-hand, the brand didn’t actually create Santa Claus. St Nick, in his many forms, has been a prominent figure of Western folklore for centuries, and the modern-day image we have of the jolly character is inspired by numerous historical and mythical figures, including the Christian Bishop “St Nicholas of Myra”.

Though Coke might not be the reason we consider Santa to be an essential part of our cultural heritage, they did have a remarkable impact on the way we view Father Christmas today.

Coca Cola
Credit: Miel Van Opstal

During 1931, the Coca Cola brand commissioned an illustrator called Haddon Sundblom to create an oil painting of Santa Claus drinking a coke on Christmas Eve. Sundblom based the image he designed on the Cement Clarke Moor poem, ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas’, published in 1822, giving him a huge white beard, rosy cheeks, and a round figure.

Though the Sundblom image of Santa wasn’t what the public was used to at the time, it quickly became an iconic image, replicated by writers, filmmakers, and artists throughout the world. People everywhere were keen to embrace this new idea of a playful, fun, and welcoming Father Christmas. This meant that with a little branding know-how, Coca-Cola was able to make their idea of Santa into the definitive icon.

Coca Cola and Christmas: Becoming the festive brand

Of course, when the Coke brand designed their new Santa Claus, they didn’t just become the number one company for the festive season over night. Instead, they needed to develop a marketing campaign that made their new identity as appealing as possible.

In 1995, the company introduced the “Holidays are Coming”, advertisements, featuring brightly-coloured trucks emblazoned with the image of the Coca Cola Santa. Today, people are so attached to the ads, that in 2006, when the business tried something different, there was a complete public outcry. Several complaints and petitions led to the original trucks returning in 2007. Now, in the UK at least, it’s not uncommon to hear people say, “It’s just not Christmas until the Coke ad is on.”

Coca Cola
Credit: W_Minshull

In more recent years, the Coca Cola brand has continued to build on their connection with the festive season by hosting a tour throughout the UK in December. Thousands of people come to have their photos taken alongside the legendary vehicles, meaning that the Coke brand has managed to take their advertising efforts off the screen, and into the streets as an experiential marketing effort.

Campaigning with colour: The Coca Cola brand identity

The connection between Coke and the Christmas season might be part of what makes the brand so appealing on a universal scale, but it’s not the only feature worth noting when it comes to the Coca Cola brand identity.

Instead, the decision to integrate the idea of Coca Cola with the “most wonderful time of the year”, could be seen as a natural progression in the company’s branding strategy. After all, since the very beginning, Coke has been obsessed with representing themselves in connection with ideas of joy. Practically every marketing campaign they’ve ever designed is based on the concept that Coke can make people happy.

In fact, the first advertisement that the Coca Cola brand ever designed branded the beverage as a “delicious and refreshing drink”, while showing pictures of smiling characters.

Coca Cola
Credit: (left) The Elks Magazine, (right) The Elks Magazine

The simple and welcoming nature of the Coca Cola brand voice is something that hasn’t changed or wavered over the years. Every advert they design carefully uses wording and phrases that make you think about fun and delight.

This is something you can even see on the brand’s social media pages.

However, as compelling as the Coca Cola voice might be, it’s nothing compared to the overall image of the brand – something that seems to have worked its way into the very fabric of the consumer world.

The Coca Cola brand colours

Just take a moment to consider the Coca Cola brand colours for instance. They were chosen right from the beginning for an important reason. Studies show that the colour red triggers impulse buys, while the swirling white letters within the logo are almost liquid in design.

Back in the 1980s, there was a period when the Coke company were struggling with brand recognition. They released cherry and diet coke, and their lack of consistent colouring meant that these beverages were seen as competition by customers, instead of appearing to be members of the same family. Once these issues were dealt with, the Coca Cola brand family started to become more consistent with its branding, making it one of the most recognised drinks in the world.

In fact, around 94% of the world’s population can instantly identify Coke’s red and white logo – even if the name of the brand isn’t present.

In fact, the brand image is so potent, that it’s contributed to something called the Pepsi Paradox. This idea suggests that even though Pepsi frequently beats Coke in blind taste testing, when people know what they’re drinking, they still choose Coke, simply because they feel more connected to the company.

The Coca Cola brand is what gives it an edge, and creates the subconscious loyalty that people feel towards that red and white design.

The Coca Cola logo: The power of trademarked typography

With a strong brand purpose and a focused strategy, Coca Cola has produced possibly the world’s most widely-recognised company. Today, there’s no mistaking the look and feel of their iconic logo, or the distinct image that the organisation attempts to portray.

Although the Coke brand has experimented with its logo once or twice over the years, it has always come back to that classic serif script. This typography was originally designed by Frank M. Robinson, the man who named the beverage and created its first logo.

While it’s difficult to say what prompted Robinson to choose the Spencerian script for the Coca Cola logo, it’s possible to suggest that he was simply using a style that was popular at the time. However, regardless of why the typography was chosen, it’s effective in its job, projecting a formal, yet personal, and inviting image for the brand.

The way the letters in the Coca Cola logo flow fill the mind with thoughts of liquid and a sense of movement. It’s easy to see why the brand identity behind Coca Cola owes so much to its unique logo design, which has helped the company to outshine its competition, and demonstrate its personality in a unique, and simple way.

While other organisations have changed and adapted their logo over the years, much of the Coke brand’s imagery has remained the same. Perhaps this is because their values haven’t changed over the decades. Coca Cola’s marketing campaigns have always been about creating delightful, feel-good memories. Whether it’s the vintage Santa Claus imagery, or the “Buy the World a Coke” commercials, this is a company that’s infused with warm, fuzzy feelings.

Considering the basic elements of the Coke logo haven’t changed since their inception, consumers can take over a century of feel-good advertising and infuse it with a single image. It’s no wonder that the Coca Cola brand feels like an old friend.

Coca Cola

Coca Cola marketing: It’s all about emotion

Perhaps one of the most important things to recognise about the Coca Cola brand is that it was an advocate for the concept of emotional marketing, long before emotion-based branding was a trend.

As we’ve already mentioned in this article a couple of times, the Coca Cola brand identity is built around values of joy, experience, and community. In other words, it’s an inherently emotional brand – something that’s evident in every piece of marketing material the company produces.

Whether you’re “Sharing a Coke”, or “Tasting the Difference”, the Coca Cola marketing strategy encourages you to do it with a smile on your face, and a sense of joy in your heart. From the whimsical Santa Claus-based campaigns at Christmas to the social strategies that Coca Cola uses, everything they do is based on emotion, and that’s what makes the business so successful.

No matter how the organisation has changed over the decades, it’s never once tried to tell its customers how sweet, or fizzy, or unique its soft drinks are. Instead, the Coca Cola slogans and advertising messages attempt to show people the kind of lifestyle that the brand wants to be associated with. For instance, let’s just consider the Coca Cola taglines throughout the years:

  • 1979: Have a Coke and Smile.
  • 1989: Can’t Beat the Feeling.
  • 2001: Life Tastes Good.
  • 2009: Open Happiness.
  • 2011: Life Begins Here.
  • 2016: Taste the Feeling.

The Coke brand is powerful because it knows its customers make decisions based on how they feel about a company, rather than what that company can offer. One of the ways that Coca Cola has inspired such a loyal following over the years, is by creating a sense of belonging among its customers, in the “Share a Coke”, or “Open happiness” campaigns.

They don’t just tell you to enjoy the drink yourself, but to share the experience with the people you love, and become a part of a community in the process.

Coca Cola
Credit: Mike Mozart

Ultimately, products from any brand are soulless creations, and that means that there’s very little differentiating them from each other when it comes to features, functions, and materials. What can make your company different, as the Coca Cola brand teaches us, is the way customers feel when they’re presented with your product.

If you can design a company that makes an emotional connection with its audience in the same way we feel linked to our friends and relatives, then you can build a relationship that results in long-lasting loyalty.

Coca Cola marketing: Lessons for an iconic brand

No matter whether you love the sugary taste of Coca Cola, or you hate it, it’s hard to deny that this brand is one of the few that seems to own the marketing world. After all, the Coca Cola brand has now been established for more than 130 years – so it must be doing something right.

Even though the company has faced a few hiccups along the way, Coke’s marketing campaigns are always exciting, fresh, and noteworthy. Its unique approach to branding, and the unique Coca Cola brand personality ensures that this company will always remain in the hearts and minds of customers from all generations.

So, how can you use the Coca Cola story to inspire your branding efforts?

1. Focus on consistency

Though Coca Cola is no stranger to coming up with unique marketing campaigns to capture the attention of its target market, it know that ingenuity can’t override the need for a consistent brand experience.

By creating a lasting imprint in your customer’s mind, you can ensure that you tap into years of branding potential with every new campaign. Not only has the Coca Cola brand chose to maintain the same scripted font for its logo, along with its tell-tale red, all of its marketing is also linked back to the theme of joy and happiness.

2. Be wary of big changes

While most Coca Cola branding efforts have been successful, that doesn’t mean the company hasn’t made mistakes in the past. For instance, in 1985, the company released “New Coke”, to take the market share from rivals in the industry. Unfortunately, the organisation instead alienated their fans, who wanted nothing more than the original Coke formula.

Even though Coca Cola had conducted a lot of testing to make sure that people liked the flavour of their newest drink, people were already loyal to Classic Coke, and attempting to change too quickly meant that Coke faced a significant backlash.

Just remember, when it comes to branding, you should never make a big change without careful thought and consideration.

3. Know the power of your brand

A lot of businesses assume that their most important asset is their product. However, the truth is that the item or service you’re selling is nothing without the support of a powerful brand. One of the reasons why the Coca Cola brand is so successful is that it has focused on building its brand, instead of its product.

Rather than telling you how delicious Coke is, the Coca Cola brand invests in creating an idea of what life with Coke is like. The company sells a lifestyle that’s based on things like community, happiness, and love. If you can take the same approach in your marketing campaigns, and sell an idea, or an experience instead of a product, then you might have a better chance of long-term success.

4. Stay relevant

Finally, while consistency is an important part of what makes the Coca Cola brand so appealing, holding true to your values might not be enough to keep you on top of your market for more than 100 years. Although today’s Coke is still built around the same positive ideas that it had upon conception, it also remains topical and modern too.

The brand goes out of its way to link itself to trending topics and ideas in the social world, and that’s part of how it’s become such a successful social media presence, as well as a global brand. For any business, keeping your finger on the pulse when it comes to issues in your industry and the things your customers care about is the key to creating brand affinity.

Take a leaf out of the Coca Cola brand book, and make sure that you’re always listening to your audience.

Coca Cola: A brand with feeling

There are plenty of lessons that brands can learn from Coca Cola’s rise to fame, but perhaps the most important teaching of all, is that the path to a successful brand is built upon an emotional foundation.

From its decision to create the Santa Claus that we all know and love today, to Coca Cola’s choice to continue using the same type of serif script in its logos and bottles for more than 100 years, this is a brand that knows that iconic ideas come from a state of mind – not just a product.

The Coke USP doesn’t claim that the drink is fizzier, or healthier than other options on the market – and it doesn’t have to. When you buy a coke, you’re not purchasing the drink for its unique flavour (even if you might like the taste), you’re buying into a community, and investing in a brand that promises a joy-filled experience.

You don’t have to redesign an entire holiday to become an iconic brand, but if you can make it seem as though your product will deliver peace, love, and happiness to the world, then you’ll be giving the Coca Cola brand a run for its money.

Now read these: 
Discover the best Coke commercials ever
The Coca-Cola brand positioning strategy

Stewart Hodgson
Stewart Hodgson
Our co-founder, Stewart, is responsible for content strategy and managing Fabrik’s publishing team. It’s up to Stewart to bring Fabrik to busy marketers’ attention. As a regular contributor to Brand Fabrik, Stewart creates articles relevant to anyone in branding, marketing and creative communication.

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