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Coca-Cola and the First Coupon

It’s probably the most popular carbonated beverage in the world, but it wasn’t always an easy sell.

Coca-Cola was invented in the late 19th Century by Confederate veteran John Stith Pemberton. It was billed as “coca-wine,” a medical elixir Pemberton claimed could cure everything from impotence to morphine addiction. (After the war, Pemberton and a lot of other veterans were suffering from morphine addiction. Pemberton created Coca-cola in his quest to overcome the addiction). Of course, back then, Coca-Cola contained significant amounts of cocaine. Even so, Pemberton wasn’t exactly making bank with the product.

Enter Asa Griggs Candler, the man who would take Coca-cola from drug-store remedy to a brand recognized around the world.

This great blurb in Wired attributes much of Candler’s success to a simple idea that no one had ever really heard of: The Coupon.

Before Candler purchased Coca-cola from Pemberton, Pemberton’s “bookkeeper started giving away tickets for free tastes of Coke, but Pemberton chided him for ‘extravagance.’ Then along came tycoon Asa Griggs Candler, who bought the company in 1888, picked up on the bookkeeper’s idea, and mailed out thousands of the ticket shown above. The coupon as we know it was born.

“In its first year, the company sold, on average, nine glasses a day. By 1913, Coca-Cola had redeemed 8.5 million ‘free drink’ coupons.” Even by today’s standards, that’s a lot of product for a relatively new company to be producing, let alone giving away for free.

You don’t need me to tell you how successful Coca-cola has become in the last hundred years. But here are a couple numbers to give you some perspective: When Candler bought the company off Pemberton, he paid $2,300 for it.

Today, The Coca-Cola Company is worth over $146 billion.

So what’s the lesson here, if there is one? And it’s not that Coca-Cola can cure impotence. It’s this:

If you have a product that people will want, then let it speak for itself. Asa Griggs Candler let Coca-Cola do just that, and it said an awful lot.

Follow me on Twitter @ThinkOfThat.

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