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)
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"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.

Some people call Under The Influence "UTI" for short. It’s not a good nickname. But certain brand nicknames are positive and extremely valuable - like "Coke" and "Chevy." Others like “Whole Paycheck” don’t make Whole Foods happy. Join us this week as we explore the unexpected implications of Brand Nicknames. 0:57

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:


For more stories about Brand Nicknames, click or tap the "Listen" button above to hear the full Under the Influence episode. You can also find us on the CBC Radio app or subscribe to our podcast.


Under the Influence is recorded in the Terstream Mobile Recording studio, a 1969 Airstream trailer that's been restored and transformed into a studio on wheels, so host Terry O'Reilly can record the show wherever he goes.

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