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Campaign Reveals Just a Little Bit of Coke’s Secret Formula

The Coca-Cola secret formula is becoming a little less secret.

For more than a century, Coke has fiercely guarded its recipe, created in 1886 by John S. Pemberton, a druggist in Atlanta who was trying to concoct a health drink. In recent decades the company has spun an aura of mystery around the formula — partly for competitive reasons, but also as a marketing tool.

In a campaign introduced last month in Britain, Coke divulged a few facts about the formula. It has “no added preservatives or artificial flavors.” Its mastermind, Dr. Pemberton, selected “the best spices from around the world.” And Coke says that the recipe has not changed in 122 years.

Coca-Cola bottles
AP
Coca-Cola bottles

That final detail has cut both ways for Coca-Cola, which faced near-insurrection in the 1980s when it tried to tinker with the formula but now confronts public perceptions that its flagship drink is unhealthy or unnatural.

“When we talked to consumers about Coke, we realized they didn’t know that it has no added preservatives or artificial flavors,” said Cathryn Sleight, marketing director of Coca-Cola Great Britain. “We felt it was important to reassure Coke drinkers of this fact.”

Coca-Cola Great Britain will print the line “no added preservatives or artificial flavors” on the tens of millions of cans and bottles of Coke it sells each year in Britain. It has also set up a Web site, letsgettogether.co.uk, where it answers questions about the formula — without giving away any secrets, of course.

One consumer put the question to the Web site bluntly: “What are the ingredients?” The answer was: “You’ll find all the ingredients in Coke and all the other drinks we sell on their can or bottle.” For Coca-Cola, the site says, that means carbonated water, sugar, caffeine, phosphoric acid, caramel for color and “natural flavorings.”

The Web site is part of a campaign called “Pemberton.” It was created by Santo, an Argentine agency, and is being introduced around the world this year. The campaign, which has television and print components, opened in Austria and Switzerland in April, and in Britain in July. In the United States, it began July 4 and will run through the Olympics on NBC.

“ ‘Pemberton’ is more fact-based, affirming for consumers that Coca-Cola never has had, and never will have, added preservatives or artificial flavors,” said Cristina Bondolowski, global brand director for Coca-Cola.

Carbonated soft drinks have waned in popularity as people have turned to alternatives that they consider more natural, like waters and teas. Coca-Cola and its rivals have also been under pressure from health lobbies and government officials over concerns of obesity in children.

The Pemberton campaign is not aimed at depicting regular Coke as a diet drink. The Web site says that a 250-milliliter serving — about 8.5 ounces — has 105 calories, or 5 percent of the recommended daily intake for an adult.

Tim Ambler, a senior fellow on the marketing faculty of the London Business School, said he did not see what Coke gained from the message of the Pemberton campaign. “Focusing on no added preservatives or artificial flavors is an odd thing for Coca-Cola to do,” he said.

As for the rationale that consumers did not realize that Coke had no added preservatives, “my response to that would be that maybe consumers didn’t know — but they didn’t care,” Mr. Ambler said. “People don’t go looking for a soft drink with no additives.”

The campaign is a bit of a departure for Coke, which usually tries to link its brand to the image of young, vibrant people having fun. Many previous campaigns have celebrated the drink’s taste, saying that it is “less sweet” than Pepsi, but this is the first time the company has focused squarely on the ingredients.

The change of tack may have something to do with a new drink, Pepsi Raw, that was introduced in the Britain in February. PepsiCo says that by replacing corn syrup with cane sugar in Pepsi Raw, it has reduced the calorie content of a 300 milliliter serving — about 10 ounces — to 90 calories from 120 calories.

Coke as a health drink?

For the time being, the drink has been introduced only in the Britain, where it is the first new formulation Pepsi has added to its line in more than 10 years. Pepsi also boasts that Pepsi Raw is made from natural ingredients and contains no artificial preservatives, colors, flavorings or sweeteners.

Coke and Pepsi seem to be “responding to a global trend,” said Jasmine Montgomery, managing director of FutureBrand, a brand consulting division of McCann-Erickson WorldGroup. “Obesity, and health issues in general are hot topics at the moment, and they are not going to go away.”

Companies that make sugared soft drinks “are having to work out what their future looks like in this very health and diet-obsessed world, and it is a source of considerable anxiety,” she said.

While Pemberton highlights Coke’s ingredients, a second campaign introduced last month in Britain, “Intrinsics,” focuses on taste. A TV spot called “Share the Love” shows a man phoning a friend who is sitting on a crowded commuter train, then opening a Coke, pouring it and drinking it to make his friend on the train jealous.

“Intrinsics’’ includes TV spots by Wieden & Kennedy of Portland, Ore., and outdoor and radio components by Mother, a British agency. Mother has also contributed a series of “blipverts,” or five-second TV spots, which depict the sounds and noises associated with drinking a Coke, together with images of the cap being taken off a bottle of Coke, for example, or ice being dropped in a glass.

Because they are short, the blipverts themselves are unusual. Coke has used them before to advertise its Fanta brand, but blipverts still represent a relatively new approach. The titles of the latest ones are evocative: “Cap,” “Fizz,” “Ice” and “Pour.”

“The aim of the blipverts is not to try to tell a big story,” said Andy Medd, a partner at Mother. “We’re simply creating anticipation of desire. It’s very simple.”

Ms. Bondolowski, the Coke brand director, said that Intrinsics made a more emotional appeal than Pemberton. The goal is “reminding consumers of the pleasure of enjoying an ice cold Coke, evoking positive feelings and memories about the brand and the product,” she said.

Ms. Montgomery of FutureBrand said that Coca-Cola took a risk by deviating from its “long history of very entertaining, aspirational advertising.” People rely on Coke to produce commercials that influence pop culture, she said.

“I’m very skeptical about whether a campaign about no additives or preservatives is the way to go,” Ms. Montgomery said. “Coke’s big strength has always been the lifestyle and the attitude of the brand — not its health credentials.”