The Four Horsemen May Charge Over the Earth—but Coca-Cola Will Remain

Ginger ale became so big during Prohibition that even the notorious gangster Al Capone got in on the act, setting up ginger ale and club soda bottling plants so that he could monopolize the mixer market in Chicago. He and his older brother Ralph “Bottles” Capone, who was put in charge of the mobster’s soda operation, made millions from the business. The marriage of soda and alcohol established during Prohibition would prove to be one of the temperance movement’s most enduring legacies, prompting a change in American drinking habits that still lingers on today.

But while Canada Dry built an empire in the speakeasies, Coca-Cola was enjoying even greater success. By the time Robert Woodruff took charge in 1923 the company was in great shape, with the challenges of the late 1910s resolved. The 1920s lay before the company ready for the taking, and Woodruff used this rosy inheritance to turn Coca-Cola into the epitome of modern business. During the first twenty-five years of his leadership, Coca-Cola would not just dominate the fizzy drink industry but transform how all businesses operated and weave its product into the very soul of America. Woodruff’s Coca-Cola captured the spirit of the 1920s. It was an age of bold dreams, expansive plans, and modernist thinking in which synthetic plastics, refrigeration, cars, color advertising, radio, airplanes, and telephones fundamentally reshaped the world. One of the fruits of this push for the modern was a vision of the corporate boss as a decision-maker reliant on the expert knowledge of PR specialists, lawyers, researchers, salespeople, and advertising creatives to run their businesses. Woodruff was nothing if not a professional manager. Under his stewardship Coca-Cola became a firm at the cutting edge of modernist corporate management.

One of the first signs of the cigar-puffing six-footer’s determination to modernize, standardize, and improve was his early push to clean up Coca-Cola’s bottling plants. Bottled Coca-Cola sales were still behind those made at the soda fountains, but the lucrative potential of the home and take-away market was obvious. The only hurdle was the lingering image of unsanitary bottles that still put many people off. For Woodruff, cleaning up the bottlers was a priority, and, the company legend goes, he witnessed the problem firsthand shortly after becoming president when he visited a Coca-Cola bottling plant. Inside he found piles of broken glass, dust-covered machinery, and pools of spilled Coca-Cola syrup swarming with flies. Furious, he told the bottler that if the plant wasn't clean by the next day they would no longer be a Coca-Cola bottling plant. “But Mr. Woodruff,” pleaded the bottler, “it don’t do no good to clean up. The next day it’ll look like this again.” Woodruff removed his cigar from his mouth and growled: “You wipe your ass, don’t you?”

Woodruff began issuing edicts to the company’s twelve hundred bottlers that dictated everything from employee dress codes and delivery truck color schemes to hygiene standards and the exact amount of syrup to be used in each bottle. To enforce these rules he formed a quality control department to monitor their output and used local advertising support as a carrot and a stick. Bottlers who did what they were told got advertising support, those who did not found Coca-Cola advertising dollars vanished from their territory. By 1928 more Coca-Cola was being sold in bottles than at the soda fountain, where Woodruff continued his push for a standardized beverage by getting soda jerks to serve the drink in the now iconic bell-shaped Coca-Cola glasses that came with a mark showing exactly how much syrup to pour in.

Woodruff’s quest for standardization was fueled by his ardent belief that the image mattered as much as the product’s actual quality. Coca-Cola the liquid might be unremarkable but the brand that came with it was anything but. For Woodruff, Coca-Cola was not just a drink but a lifestyle choice, and its public image was as crucial as any ingredient in its secret formula. In fact the secret formula would play a vital role in Coca-Cola’s efforts to turn its soda into a corporate totem. In 1925 the company relocated the lone copy of the formula from the New York bank vault, where it had been held since the sugar crisis, back to Atlanta in a blaze of publicity. Then it made public the procedures surrounding the mysterious document—policies that seemed more appropriate for a state secret than a soda recipe. Employees needed approval from the board to even look at the document, and only two Coca-Cola employees were permitted to know the recipe at any one time. The secret formula was more than a trade secret; it was now a holy relic—a divine object of mystery sealed deep within an impenetrable vault.

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(Wikimedia Commons)

This was myth-making on a Wizard of Oz scale: any chemist worth his or her salt could decode much of the formula, as the hundreds of cola copycats had proved, and there wasn't really anything that special lurking in the liquid. But that was, in many ways, the point. It wasn't the drink that mattered so much as what customers believed it to be. And the task of telling them what to think about the drink fell to Archie Lee, the company’s advertising mastermind.

Born and raised in Monroe, North Carolina, Lee grew up dreaming of writing literary novels and leaving an impression on the world. “I feel that to work just for money’s sake would be a desecration,” the idealistic youth once wrote to his mother. “I want to do something really worthwhile. I would die happy if it should be just one recognized and lasting thing.” Lee’s search for greatness took him into journalism, but after several years as a reporter he made the leap into advertising by joining Coca-Cola’s ad agency D’Arcy, where he took charge of the Coke account in 1923. Today Lee’s approach seems obvious, but in the 1920s it was groundbreaking. Most advertisers were still stuck in a rut of verbose text-heavy promotions that often resorted to dry, functional detail or to scare tactics to win business. Lee had little time for such approaches. “The offering of a product is blunt selling,” he wrote in a 1945 letter summarizing his beliefs about advertising. “Presenting the idea from the consumer angle is using imagination.”

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Tristan Donovan is the author of Replay: The History of Video Games and Fizz: How Soda Shook Up the World. He has written for The Sunday TimesThe Daily TelegraphThe Guardian, and The Big Issue.

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