Weird History

How The Coca-Cola Company Has Kept Its Recipe ‘Secret’ For More Than 130 Years  

Megan Summers
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Since its invention by John Pemberton in 1886, Coca-Cola has become the most well known soft drink in the world. Yet who actually knows the Coca-Cola recipe?

On its website, Coca-Cola claims the company's "secret formula for making Coca-Cola has remained a trade secret for 130 years." Shrouding the drink's ingredients in secrecy "creates a natural curiosity about the product itself," according to social psychologist and marketing expert Ben Voyer

As the years have passed and speculation concerning the Coke recipe has grown, people have come out of the woodwork claiming to know the recipe and other company secrets. Yet Coca-Cola insists its methods remain unknown by the public. So how does Coca-Cola protect its formula? 

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Photo: Unknown/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain
Pemberton Invented Coca-Cola In 1886, But The Formula Was Not Written Down Until 1919

While Pemberton is technically the creator of the beloved carbonated beverage, he sold the company to Asa Candler soon after its invention in 1886. Pemberton passed in 1888, and Candler became Coca-Cola's sole proprietor in 1892.

For more than a quarter century, the recipe was disclosed only by word of mouth. When Ernest Woodruff acquired the company in 1919, he used the secret formula as collateral for the loan he needed to finalize the purchase. According to Coca-Cola's website:

[Woodruff] asked Candler's son to write the formula down and placed the paper in a vault in the Guaranty Bank in New York until the loan was repaid in 1925. At that point, Woodruff reclaimed the secret formula, returned it to Atlanta and placed it in Trust Company Bank, now SunTrust, where it remained for 86 years until its recent move to the World of Coca-Cola.

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Photo:  Internet Archive Book Images/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain
After Buying The Company In 1919, Ernest Woodruff Used The Secret Formula As A Marketing Gimmick

Woodruff, a savvy businessman, made a public display out of procuring the Coca-Cola company and its special recipe. Keeping the written ingredients list sealed in a bank vault amplified the drink's desirability and special status.

In 1923, Ernest Woodruff made his son Robert president of the company. Working under his father's guidance, Robert became a marketing whiz in his own right, integrating the drink into the lives of every day consumers - not just in the United States but around the world. Under Robert's management, the company began selling Coke overseas and, in 1928, sent Coca-Cola along with Team USA to the Amsterdam Olympics. Robert also was an early proponent of the six-pack, which brought even more of his product into customers' homes.

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The Original Formula Now Resides At The World Of Coca-Cola Museum In Atlanta

In a widely publicized gesture, Coca-Cola company executives had the secret recipe moved from the bank vault to Atlanta's World of Coca-Cola Museum. This was done as part of the company's 125th anniversary celebrations in 2012.

Phil Mooney, director of archives for Coca-Cola, explained in a media release how his company "has always gone to great lengths to protect [its formula] and now by safeguarding it at the World of Coca-Cola, we can share its legendary legacy with people around the world."

Coca-Cola CEO Muhtar Kent went into more detail at the time, saying:

By sharing this secret formula experience with our consumers, we celebrate both the rich history of the brand's beginnings and the moments of refreshment and happiness to come for future generations. This is yet another way we are recognizing and thanking everyone around the world who has made the Coca-Cola brand what it is today.

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You Can Visit The Vault Where The Formula Is Allegedly Stored

Coca-Cola informed the media it would be sending its sacred formula to the World of Coca-Cola, where it would be put on display within The Vault of the Secret Formula.

Today, the formula is allegedly sealed within this elaborately decorated vault, equipped with "a palm scanner, a numerical code pad, and massive steel door." The mood is further intensified with red lighting and smoke machines.

The vault has become an attraction for the Coke museum, tempting guests with the promise of becoming "closer than ever before to the secret formula." Here, the extensive exhibit includes:

...an immersive multimedia journey toward the Chamber of the Secret Formula. Along the way, learn about the origins of the secret formula, how competitors tried to copy the success of Coca‑Cola, how the owners of Coca‑Cola kept the formula secret throughout the years, and how the secrecy spawned a trove of myths and legends.