The titanic brand clash at the heart of the cola market is of course between Coke and Pepsi, a compelling tale in itself of the two first-movers in the category who have been at each other’s throats (not to mention those of consumers) by airwave, video image, and celebrity endorsement since the late 1800s. The Cola Wars, so called, offer no end of instructive anecdote and juicy tidbit, not least the lesson of the century’s scrappy third-place contender, RC Cola, a brand far enough off the radar that it is rarely considered to be on the battlefield, even though it has been soldiering on with admirable spunk and, one imagines, an edge of resentment for very many decades.
RC’s front-man, Claud Hatcher, was a grocery store owner in Columbus, Georgia who in the early 1900’s refused to meet the local sales rep’s price on Coke’s patented syrup and set off to develop his own soft drink formulas. Royal Crown Ginger Ale was first off the line in 1905, followed by a cherry cola in 1910, fruit flavored Nehi drinks in 1924 (you may remember M*A*S*H’s Radar O’Reilly pining for the grape version), and finally a straight-up cola product in 1934.
What Happened Next?
While RC’s cola products never seriously challenged Coke’s dominance or threatened to displace Pepsi in the two-spot, the company has had a strong national presence throughout its history. It beat the big guys to the punch on diet cola in 1958 and caffeine free cola in 1980 although by those late dates a formula tweak, however innovative, was never going to be a game-changer.
Where Are They Now?
RC Cola stood alone until 2000 when it became part of an acquisition chain whose links included Snapple, Cadbury Schweppes, Dr. Pepper/Seven Up and, on the international front, a Canadian outfit called Cott Beverages.
As of late 2013, when it was dethroned by Apple Computer, Coke had occupied the number one spot in Interbrand’s assessment of Top 100 Best Global Brands for twelve years in a row. It’s currently third. Pepsi is 22nd. RC does not chart.
Coke is based in Atlanta today. The original formula was developed by John Pemberton at his Drug and Chemical House located in… wait for it… Columbus, Georgia! That’s right, what we think of today as a typical brand battle between competing national products began as a small town spat over volume discounts. We don’t know for sure, but it’s easy to think that Claud Hatcher was not only a hard-driving negotiator angling for incremental improvement on his margins, he was a hometown rival who saw a local business succeeding beyond all measure and thought to himself that he could do better. How many entrepreneurs can relate to that feeling? Probably most of them.