Under the Influence

Why Coca-Cola railed against the nickname 'Coke'

"Coke" wasn't always a welcome nickname. In fact, early Coca-Cola ads attempted to dissuade the public from using the term.
(Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press)

"Coke" is a nickname.

The soft drink is officially called Coca-Cola. It is one of the most valuable companies in the world. Coca-Cola was also a mass marketing pioneer.

Founder John Pemberton placed the first newspaper ads for Coca-Cola back in 1886. By 1912, the advertising budget was $1M or nearly $30M in today's dollars - a huge ad budget for the times.

Even with a budget that big, the soft drink company discovered people weren't asking for a Coca-Cola in stores, they were asking for a Coke. It was a nickname that evolved very early in Coca-Cola's history. And the Coca-Cola company wasn't very happy about that.

In 1913, the company actually created an advertising campaign to dissuade people from using the nickname Coke. The campaign theme was:

"Coca-Cola: Ask for it by its full name - then you will get the genuine."

Clearly, Coca-Cola feared the short nickname would erode its unique brand identity and could quite possibly lead to a generic trademark. In other words, the company worried that "Coke" could become the catch-all word for any soft drink.

Coca-Cola kept encouraging the public to ask for a Coca-Cola instead of a Coke for the next 30 years. But the public still insisted on asking for a Coke. The nickname was unstoppable.

The brand's diet variety is now called "Diet Coke." (The Associated Press)

So the soft drink company had to make a decision. To either keep fighting that trend and risk another company grabbing the word "Coke" as a trademark - or embrace it. They chose the latter.

To fold Coke into their trademark and brand identity, Coca-Cola created an advertising character called the "Sprite Boy" in 1942.

The mascot was illustrated by Haddon Sundblom, the same artist who created the iconic Coca-Cola Santa Claus image. This Sprite mascot was designed to look like an elf or a little pixie - with just a face and hands - and it wore a Coca-Cola bottlecap as a hat.

By the way, Sprite Boy was not connected to the lemon-lime soft drink of the same name. As a matter of fact, Sprite Boy was created and retired long before Sprite the drink was introduced.

The purpose of Sprite Boy was to remind people that Coke and Coca-Cola were the same thing. Print ads would show the Sprite Boy peeking around a bottle of Coca-Cola. You can feel how much the company was struggling with their nickname - as even the headlines were awkward. For example, one Sprite Boy ad said: "Hello, I'm Coca-Cola, known too, as Coke."

There was even a P.S. at the bottom of the ads that said: "Everybody likes to shorten words. Abbreviation is a natural law of language. 'Coke' is the friendly abbreviation for the trademark Coca-Cola."

In 1945, Coca-Cola gave in to the force of its customers and trademarked the nickname. The first advertising slogan to use the word "Coke" appeared in 1948. It said: "Where there's Coke, there's hospitality."

Maybe the biggest sign the company had fully embraced the nickname came in 1971 when it launched this campaign:

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The Terstream Mobile Recording Studio. (Image Credit: Sidney O'Reilly)