ATLANTA — After Coca-Cola sparked a consumer revolt last year by changing the 99-year-old formula of America's favorite soft drink, it seemed the company might have little to celebrate when Coke's 100th anniversary arrived today.
But Coca-Cola has rebounded--bigger and wealthier than ever--from perhaps the worst corporate blunder since Ford Motor brought out the Edsel, and it is now marking Coke's centennial with a four-day extravaganza in Atlanta that it bills as "the largest private party ever staged." According to one outside estimate, the party will run up a tab of $23 million.
More than 12,000 Coca-Cola bottlers, their employees and families from around the world have been flown here at company expense to join about 10,000 current and retired local Coke employees and their families for the ballyhoo, merry-making and speech-making.
At Hartsfield Airport, the visiting Coca-Cola family members were greeted by bevies of peach-cheeked Georgia belles in colorful hoop skirts, wide-brimmed sun hats and flouncy parasols with--what else?--a Coke and a smile.
This afternoon at the Georgia World Congress Center, a 1.8-million-square-foot exhibition hall that has been converted into a Coca-Cola "Centennial Center," they will join colleagues from six continents via satellite to croon the Coke anthem, "I'd Like to Buy the World a Coke."
Friday night, at a gala dinner, they will feast on 1,000 pounds of beef and lamb, two tons of cheese, 250 cases of champagne--and a 35-layer birthday cake. On Saturday, as the culmination of the four days of festivities that began Wednesday, they will be treated to a two-hour parade up Peachtree Street to Coca-Cola's world headquarters. The parade is to include 30 big floats, 30 marching bands and a 300-member clown corps drawn entirely from the ranks of Coke employees.
"Coca-Cola does it first class," said Bill Hicks, manager of the Coca-Cola bottling plant in Dothan, Ala., expressing a common sentiment among the corporate family as he stepped through the lobby of a glittery downtown hotel. "They always have."
His wife, Eula, agreed, adding: "They spare no expense."
Coke needed to make the effort. Last year it looked as though it might undo much of its past success when it replaced the traditional Coke recipe--known by the enigmatic code name of "Merchandise X"--with one for a sweeter, less biting brew that company officials deemed better able to compete with archrival Pepsi-Cola.
A nationwide consumer protest erupted as the New Coke hit the streets and Coca-Cola lovers by the thousands turned thumbs down on it.
But two months later, the company managed to turn the tide by announcing that it was bringing back the time-honored Coke under the name of Coca-Cola Classic, giving consumers the choice of the old and the new.
And the company recovered.
"In the second half of 1985, Coca-Cola was scrambling over backward trying to keep its share of the cola market," said Lee Wilder, a securities analyst with the Atlanta-based brokerage firm of Robinson Humphrey. "Today, the company is stronger than it's ever been."
One sign of that strength comes from investors. When New Coke came on the market last April, Coca-Cola shares were selling for about $67 each on the New York Stock Exchange. A year later, on April 28, the closing price was just over $117. Much of the rise can be credited to Wall Street's recent bull market, but the company's record and prospects obviously still inspire confidence.
Moreover, despite New Coke's dismal performance, the company's share of the $38-billion-a-year U.S. soft-drink market has risen to 39% this year, compared to 29% for Pepsico, its chief competitor, according to Beverage Digest. Last year at the same time, Coke was ahead by only 29% to 23%.
"What's more, from the look of things now, this will be another record-breaking year for Coca-Cola," said Jesse Meyers, Beverage Digest's publisher, who is in Atlanta for Coke's 100th birthday celebration.
Meyers added that the company has learned a hard lesson: "If you take the Ten Commandments and turned them over and look in the upper left-hand corner, Commandment No. 11 is 'Thou shalt not change the taste of Coca-Cola.' "
Ironically, the company got where it is as the result of a blunder a century ago on May 8 when an Atlanta chemist by the name of John Styth Pemberton brought in the first jug of a sweet, sticky syrup that he had freshly concocted for a taste test at the ornate soda fountain at Jacobs' Pharmacy on the corner of Peachtree and Marietta streets.
On the first round of drinks, the soda-fountain operator followed Pemberton's suggestion and mixed the syrup with ice and plain water. But on the second round, the operator accidently put carbonated water into the glasses--and it made all the difference in the world.