Asa Candler (1851 – 1929)

The Marketing Genius Behind Coca-Cola

Asa Candler, one of eleven children, was born in 1851 in rural Villa Rica, Georgia, just north of Atlanta. Although born on a farm, Candler’s interests lay elsewhere.  He studied medicine, became a pharmacist and had a successful pharmacy.  It was here that he met John Stith Pemberton, the man who invented the Coke formula.  (Having been wounded during one of the last battles of the Civil War, Coke was the product of Pemberton’s decades long pursuit of crafting a morphine free pain killer.)

In 1888 Candler bought a share of the Coca Cola formula from Pemberton for $283, and later acquired the remainder for approximately $2,300 or about $75,000 in today’s dollars. Soon he was off to the races.

Candler’s genius wasn’t as an inventor or a designer, but as a visionary marketer.  Indeed, when he purchased the formula, Coca-Cola was a five-cent drink that has been selling only 9 glasses a day for the year it had been on the market.  But Candler saw opportunity and seized it.

He immediately set about advertising in the Atlanta Journal newspaper, debuting a full page on May 1, 1889 proclaiming his drug store the “sole proprietors of Coca‑Cola … Delicious. Refreshing. Exhilarating. Invigorating.” He incorporated the Coca-Cola Company in 1892 with initial capitalization of $100,000. 

Candler’s marketing would become legendary.  He gave away free coupons for a glass of coke to consumers (it was initially sold as a fountain drink) and simultaneously give free barrels of syrup to pharmacies (where soda fountains were typically located) who were uncertain or on the fence.  The consumers would come in, the pharmacists would see the demand and would usually become paying syrup customers.  At the same time he advertised heavily on buildings, in newspapers and had the Coca-Cola logo plastered on everything from clocks to calendars to posters.  At the same time, to maintain quality his salesmen would work with pharmacists to ensure that they consistently had the right syrup to carbonated water mix.  He was also one of the first marketers to utilize celebrity endorsements, engaging the popular actress Hilda Clark to be the face of the brand.

In 1894, the first syrup manufacturing plant outside Atlanta was opened in Dallas, followed by others in Chicago and Los Angeles and beyond.  By the end of the century Coca-Cola was distributed across the United States and into Cuba. 

Also in 1894 down in Vicksburg, Mississippi a pharmacist saw such an overwhelming demand for his fountain drink that he decided to start bottling it and selling it to go or he would deliver it.  This would be the catalyst five years later for one of Candler’s most important steps… and whether there was something of a stumble to that step is an open question. In 1899 Candler would sell the bottling rights to a trio of Tennessee businessmen for the grand total sum of $1.  They would go on to build over 1,000 Coca-Cola bottling factories around the world. The upside for the Coca-Cola Company was that all of those bottles would be filled with Coca-Cola syrup. The downside would be that a great deal of potential profit was left on the table.  Indeed, the Coca-Cola Company would spend literally billions of dollars a century later in buying back many of those bottling companies.

Another of Candler’s great moves was to market Coke as an alternative to alcohol just as America was moving towards prohibition. This was after the cocaine was largely eliminated from the formula in 1902.

By 1911 the company was spending $1,000,000 a year on advertising and was rapidly becoming the most popular drink brand in the world.  Much of that advertising would be spent building the Coke bottle (1915) and the script logo into a worldwide phenomenon.  The name was conceived by and the logo was designed by accountant Frank Mason Robinson, when he was working with Pemberton, and he would go on to be one of Candler’s partners in the establishment of the Coca-Cola Company.

In 1917 Candler would step down from the company he founded after being elected mayor of Atlanta in 1916.  He would give most of his stock to his children and together they would sell most of it to an investment group for $25,000,000 or almost half a billion dollars today.  Candler would leave his mark beyond Coca-Cola however, giving millions to Emory University, donating to the Candler Hospital in Savannah, financing and managing much of the rebuilding of Atlanta after the fire of 1917 destroyed 1,500 homes and building what were then skyscrapers in Atlanta and Manhattan, both of which still stand today.

Asa Candler would die in 1929, having never recovered from a stroke he suffered in 1926.  His most extraordinary gift was seeing the potential of a soda fountain drink that was selling relative drops when he bought it and turned it into a gushing river that flows in over 200 countries around the world.  The brand that he built is today one of the most recognizable and valuable brands in the world. Not bad for a guy who was born and died a mere 35 miles apart, having lived most of his life between the two.