Coca-Cola Owes its Early Success to Free Sample Coupons
Coca-Cola, one of the most ubiquitous products in the world, owes its success to pretty much one thing: coupons. Asa Candler, a druggist who purchased the formula for the soda in 1887, was known for his innovative marketing techniques and introduced a free sample coupon (the first of its kind) to the company's advertising program in 1894. The coupon entitled its holder to a free glass of Coca-Cola at his or her local soda fountain, which the company provided by sending free syrup to soda fountains across the nation. It is estimated that by the end of the original coupon program, 1894-1913, over 8.5 million free sodas had been claimed — one in nine Americans had sampled the product.
It's a jaw-dropping statistic, particularly for the time. In addition to running ads in magazines, Candler mailed the coupons to "likely consumers," most of whom lived in towns where door-to-door mail service had not yet been established — there was enough buzz around the free product samples that people went to the post office specifically to pick up their coupon. By 1895, Candler announced to the company shareholders that Coca-Cola was being served in every state in the country.
Candler was one of the first advertisers to use celebrity sponsors. Model and actress Hilda Clark was tapped to become the first "face of Coca-Cola," her face plastered on servings trays distributed to soda-fountains. It was opera singer Lillian Nordica, however, whose visage is associated with the coupon sampling program — Clark left the company when she married in 1903 — and the Nordica full page ads, such as the one above, are worth about $750 if they are found in good condition, coupon still attached.
The coupons were among the first ever used as marketing tools, and no other companies had much success with them for years. In 1909, C.W. Post of Post Cereals started using coupons to sell breakfast cereal by offering a 1 cent discount on each box of Grape Nuts, thus contributing to their widespread adoption. Today, coupon-based sales account for almost $3 billion sales per year in America alone.