The real recipe for Coke's success

So someone’s supposedly discovered the recipe for Coca Cola. What does that mean for the world’s most popular drink? Very little I would have thought. Because the world’s most closely guarded beverage trade secret has already done its job – it has helped build perhaps the most consistently powerful brand in the world. Beyond that, its value as a formula today is questionable.

Even if someone did replicate the taste, so what? They still wouldn’t be Coke. Great brands grow beyond the products they marque. They actually come to embody ideas – such as happiness in the case of Coca Cola – that the product reports to, and not the other way round.

The New Coke debacle might suggest otherwise to some, but to me that was much more about changing a product that consumers held dear rather than a taste issue. Consumers expressed their apprehension by citing taste, but taste, in my reading of this particular case, was the identifier to the wider fear. What they were really saying is – don’t touch.

So often brands think that their product recipe is the greatest thing they have to offer. They trademark their products or their designs and think the business and the brand is future-proofed. Not so. IP protection is important, don’t get me wrong, but it must form part of the wider, on-going telling of a compelling and relevant brand story.

In today’s environment, where no secret is safe (even the secrets of diplomats) and all products get to a point of being pretty much on par technically, I think you have to assume that a trade secret alone will not be enough. Coke recognised that a very long time ago and used its “secret” recipe to build its brand. Same with the KFC Colonel’s 11 herbs and spices. A food scientist could probably break those down in an instant. Fine, it’s done its job.

However, there is another side to this. Talking with Alex today, she made the very good point that releasing the recipe does demystify the Coke brand just a little, and, more to the point, if there was anything in the recipe that consumers hadn’t known about then that could indeed have jeopardised Coke’s brand equity.

That doesn’t seem to have been an issue in this case – beyond the widely known inclusion of coca – but, as Alex so wickedly asked, what if it had? Wow.


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