Justine Fletcher, Director of Heritage Communications, reflects on more than a century of Coca-Cola in Europe, and how the ambitions of early Coca-Cola leaders helped create the local European business it is today.
When did Coca-Cola beverages appear in Europe for the very first time?
The story of Coca-Cola in Europe dates back to the start of the 20th century. In 1900, Howard Candler, the eldest son of Company founder Asa Candler, brought a jug of syrup on a holiday trip to London. That first jug was served at a soda fountain and a subsequent order of five gallons of syrup was promptly mailed back to the States. By 1895 Coca-Cola had expanded beyond its Atlanta hometown and was already available in every State in the US. International expansion was the next logical step. While Coca-Cola was imported into Europe over the following two decades, it wasn’t until 1919 and the end of World War I that the first local European bottling agreement was signed in France.
When was the first European bottling plant opened?
The Company first began international expansion through local production in Canada, Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines. At the time, Coca-Cola was typically purchased and enjoyed by American expatriates within this first wave of countries. A gentleman named Hamilton Horsey, from the Coca-Cola Foreign Department was invited to visit Europe and travelled to the UK before compiling a report estimating the level of investment and time it would take to create a name for Coca-Cola. The interest in Europe endured, and the first European bottling franchise for the Company was signed in France with an American businessman named R.A. Linton who, along with his partner George Delcroix, launched a first campaign and began bottling operations in Paris and Bordeaux. Bottling began in 1919 in France and was soon followed by Belgium and Italy.
How important was international expansion to the early Coca-Cola leaders?
Part of the reason why many different elements of the Coca-Cola business were standardized – such as uniforms, colors and the recipe - was in anticipation of expanding the business worldwide and ensuring a consistent universal experience. Expanding the Coca-Cola business beyond the shores of North America was of particular importance to Robert Woodruff when he became President of the company in 1923. He opened what was named the “foreign department” in 1926, out of New York, which then eventually became The Coca-Cola Export Corporation. The Board of Directors were eager to expand the business and gave Mr. Woodruff permission to explore local operations almost anywhere in the world.
How were company leaders able to ensure Coca-Cola maintained the same great taste and quality when produced in Europe?
They recognized how important it was to never compromise the company’s commitment to taste and quality. Traveling labs were established where technicians would travel with a trailer and tour bottling plants to ensure drinks were produced correctly in line with the bottling partner agreement and gave the same great taste. Additionally, Company leaders would visit newly-established bottling plants to oversee operations and confirm its rigorous standards were being met. Robert W. Woodruff set-up a Standardization Committee who explored every part of the business (such as colors, advertising and signage), in anticipation of the business becoming a global operation.
What were some of the other important milestones from these early days?
By the end of World War II, the Company had established 64 bottling plants around the globe. Consumers in many countries had never previously tried Coca-Cola. The expansion of the portfolio was also significant. The 12 oz bottle was introduced in North America in 1955. Fanta was introduced in 1955 (having been first invented here in Europe the previous decade), Sprite in 1961, TAB in 1963 and then the acquisition of Minute Maid added a line of juice products to the portfolio. These brand expansions were eventually rolled out internationally.
When did Coca-Cola start connecting with sport and culture across Europe?
Our relationship with sports and culture in Europe began with the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics. For many Europeans this was their first experience of Coca-Cola and that relationship then grew as bottling plants were inaugurated over the following decades. Because Coca-Cola is a local business, the bottling partners would meet with community leaders and support local sports and cultural events. Initially, advertising materials were sent over from the U.S. and then adjusted and translated to suit local language in each country. This approach allowed a consistent message and feel throughout the globe.
Where today can we still see some of this early Coca-Cola heritage?
Wall signs and iconic billboards are all historical – and often still visible - evidence of how Coca-Cola began using outdoor advertising to reach consumers once the Company expanded beyond North America and automobiles and public transportation became more commonplace. Many of the original wall signs (termed today as ghost signs), are still being revealed as buildings are restored and urban centers are modernized.
How important has Europe remained to the global Coca-Cola story?
Simply stated, without expanding to Europe, Coca-Cola would have never become the global brand it is today. Those early entrepreneurs who took a chance on selling Coca-Cola took a risk and helped to build the foundation that our 2019 business stands upon today.