Happy Accidents #055 - Coca-Cola

A little fizz creates an iconic brand

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Welcome to another edition of Happy Accidents, where we unravel the captivating stories of unintentional discoveries.

This time, we delve into the late 19th century, where a pharmacist's quest for a medicinal tonic inadvertently gave rise to the globally cherished Coca-Cola.

Let's dig in, shall we?


This is the part of every Happy Accident story where we see every successful outcome starts with the person putting themselves in a favorable position. They work hard, they try new things, they meet new people. They're not just sitting around 'hoping' to be successful some day.

Dr. John Stith Pemberton, born in 1831, was a pharmacist and Confederate Army lieutenant colonel during the Civil War.

Following the war, he faced financial challenges and turned to pharmacy, operating a drugstore in Columbus, Georgia.

Pemberton had a penchant for curiosity and combined with his entrepreneurial flare, this proved to be quite the combination.

In 1885, he embarked on a creative mission to create a new medicinal tonic, blending coca leaves (which contain cocaine) for stimulation and kola nuts (a source of caffeine) for flavor. The coca leaves were intended to provide a stimulating effect, while the kola nuts would contribute to the beverage's flavor and caffeine content.

Little did he know, this fusion laid the groundwork for a beverage that would shape the world's taste buds.


This is the part of every success story where there's a chance encounter, a serendipitous moment, an unintentional discovery (or Happy Accident) that paves the way for the next steps. In some cases, a Happy Accident can even be disguised as something bad in the moment.

As he worked on his concoction, an unexpected twist occurred.

To make his tonic more palatable, Pemberton mixed it with carbonated water. As the legend goes, this step was initially accidental, as the final product was meant to be a syrup that could be diluted with water.

However, during the process, the carbonated water was mistakenly added to the syrup.

Turns out, that accidental addition of carbonated water created an iconic new drink. One that would leave us forgetting the medicinal origins altogether.

Pemberton's elixir, initially dubbed "Pemberton's French Wine Coca," made its debut at Jacobs' Pharmacy in Atlanta in 1886.

Customers flocked to enjoy this new drink and could not get enough of it.


Just like Happy Accidents don't just fall into your lap (you need to set the stage first), they also don't turn into anything if you don't recognize them and take action. This is the part of every success story where we see people capitalizing on their Happy Accident.

Although Pemberton knew he created something special, he was only able to take it so far. Financial troubles led him to sell parts of his formula and the business.

Enter Asa Griggs Candler, who, in 1888, acquired the rights to the formula and played a pivotal role in steering the beverage's destiny through strategic marketing.

Under Candler's and subsequent ownership, Coca-Cola transcended its medicinal origins to become a global sensation, synonymous with a unique flavor, sweetness, and effervescence.

This accidental creation would eventually become a symbol of American consumerism.


Coca-Cola's journey began as an attempt by pharmacist Dr. John Stith Pemberton to create a medicinal tonic.

Accidentally mixing it with carbonated water, Pemberton's tonic evolved into a popular beverage and debuted at Jacobs' Pharmacy in 1886.

Asa Griggs Candler's marketing prowess and adaptability to societal changes, like the removal of cocaine from the formula, turned this accidental invention into one of the world's most iconic and enduring soft drinks.

Some fun facts:

  • Yes, that rumor you heard about Coca-Cola initially containing traces of cocaine is actually true. Over time, it evolved to a "spent" coca leaf, with no cocaine now to be found in the drink.

  • When first introduced at Jacobs' Pharmacy in Atlanta, Coca-Cola was sold at five cents per glass. In the first year, sales averaged a modest nine servings per day, foreshadowing the colossal success yet to come.

  • Now? Coca-Cola currently sells 1.9 billion bottles per day (what???)

  • On average, over 10,000 soft drinks from Coca-Cola are consumed every second of every day globally (thatโ€™s incredible!)

The lessons here:

  1. Adaptability in Evolution: Coca-Cola's ability to adapt its formula over time, especially in response to societal concerns about cocaine, highlights the importance of staying flexible and responsive to changing circumstances.

  2. Unintended Branding: The accidental name change from "Pemberton's French Wine Coca" to Coca-Cola not only adhered to legal requirements but set the stage for the brand's timeless and universal identity. Sometimes, rebranding is a stroke of unintentional brilliance.

  3. Marketing Magic: Asa Griggs Candler's acquisition of Coca-Cola's rights and subsequent marketing endeavors underline the transformative power of effective promotion. Even the most accidental inventions require intentional efforts to become iconic brands.


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Hey, Dennis Geelen here. Author of the Happy Accidents newsletter.

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