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

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.

(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.”

He presented Coca-Cola not as a mere beverage that would quench your thirst but as something symbolic of innocent everyday pleasure. He commissioned artists such as Norman Rockwell and McClelland Barclay to paint scenes of happy times, sociability, and rural tranquility that he then complemented with a message condensed into a bite-size slogan, short enough for motorists to absorb from a roadside billboard in a single glance. Messages like “Thirst knows no season” and “6,000,000 drinks a day.” Simple, eye-catching, and backed with a budget capable of putting these ads in front of millions of eyeballs, Lee’s creations set the tone for the future of advertising. Lee’s most memorable slogan, “The pause that refreshes,” came in 1929. It and the myriad variations on that theme he created captured the public imagination so effectively that the company was still using the slogan twenty years later. Its impact was still being remembered seventy years on, when the industry journal Advertising Age named it one of the ten best campaign slogans of the twentieth century.

Lee’s gentle nostalgia and positive sell captured something about the American spirit, and as the 1920s went on, people began more and more to think of Coca-Cola as representative of America. People began talking about things being “as American as Coca-Cola,” and in the southern states Coca-Cola cake, a moist chocolate cake made with the soda, became a common sight at picnics and church events. The suspicion that surrounded the drink before the First World War was gone. Now Coca-Cola was part and parcel of American life. Nothing illustrated this change in public attitudes as much as the reaction to the news that the Women Christian Temperance Union of Arkansas City would devote 1929 to stamping out the “hydraheaded menace of Coca-Cola.” Instead of finding the public rallying to their crusade, the temperance activists watched their short-lived campaign get lampooned in the newspapers and dismissed as a joke.

Many of Lee’s campaigns drew on the insights that came from Coca-Cola’s statistical department, another of Woodruff’s innovations. Formed in 1923, the department brought a scientific edge to the company’s operations. It gathered vast amounts of data about traffic patterns in towns and cities throughout the United States, so that the company could pinpoint exactly which billboards would have the most impact. It identified the most valuable retailers in the country so Coca-Cola’s sales force could visit them twice as often as less lucrative stores. It analyzed the shopping habits of forty-two thousand drugstore customers and then used the results to teach soda fountain operators how to sell more Coca-Cola and how to encourage Coke drinkers to buy additional items. The statisticians also enabled the company to start accurately predicting future sales and profits—no mean feat for a company of Coca-Cola’s size in a computerless age. And in late 1928 Coca-Cola’s statistical department sent a warning to Woodruff that an economic crash was coming.

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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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