Coca-Cola: A symbol of capitalism

There are several significant dates on the early history of Coca-Cola, but a generally accepted one is January 15th 1889, 130 years ago, which was when the franchised distribution system that became its hallmark was introduced. Today the company is reckoned to have the third most popular brand name, recognized by 94 percent of the world's population, and the company's $35.1 billion in revenue makes it the 84th largest economy in the world, just ahead of Costa Rica. It has 500 brands sold in more than 200 countries.

Coca-Cola has become a symbol of entrepreneurial capitalism. Originally Colonel Pemberton was looking for a way to wean himself off the morphine addiction he'd picked up after the American Civil War. He developed a medication containing carbonated water, coca leaves (a source of cocaine), and kola nuts (a source of caffeine). It was sold in soda fountains, but it was the business model of providing syrup to franchised bottlers that provided the basis of its success.

Its status as a symbol of capitalism, and indeed of America, is helped by the fact that it has made mistakes along the way and corrected them. To counter the popularity of its sweeter tasting rival, Pepsi, the company introduced New Coke in 1985. It was a PR disaster that yielded a huge backlash. The company quickly responded with Coke Classic to recapture its popularity. It succeeded, and it quietly dropped the Classic tag in 2011.

It has responded to criticism, adding sugar-free versions such as Diet Coke and Coke Zero alongside its original product (from which the cocaine was removed long ago).

What does Coke do? It provides a product that millions of people all over the world willingly pay to consume every day. Coke spends more on advertising than Apple and Microsoft combined, recognizing that people drink it to be part of a culture as well as having their thirst quenched. Their 1971 ad featured teenage children of embassy staff on a hillside in Rome singing "I'd like to teach the world to sing," promoting Coke as a symbol of internationalism and harmony between different peoples. The song became a chart topper, albeit with the specific pitch for Coke removed.

Today Coke ranks among the world's top ten private employers with over 600,000 employees. It is a huge success, and a testament to what entrepreneurial capitalism can achieve with good ideas, determination and drive. Happy birthday, Coca-Cola.