Coca Cola in China: “Not a Single Bottle of Coke Should Be Sold to Chinese”

The first crates of Coca Cola arrived in Beijing in 1979. The majority of Chinese people had only known the drink from American movies, and were curious to try it out. Those who did, did not particularly like it.

The first 3000 cases of Coca Cola arrived in Beijing in 1979. Its arrival to China did not come without controversy, as the brand formally represented the “Western capitalist lifestyle”. But the Cultural Revolution had come to and end, and Western brands were slowly but surely coming to mainland China.

After the restoration of Sino-American diplomatic relations, Coca Cola was one of the first international companies to re-enter China. The Coca Cola shipment was the result of an agreement between the company and the Chinese government signed in December 1978, which was meant to sell Coca Cola to foreigners in China; initial sales were restricted to specially designated outlets, such as hotels and “Friendship” stores in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou. But ordinary Chinese people, who only knew Coca Cola from the movies, also wanted to drink it.

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The first cases of Coca Cola arriving in Beijing in 1979.

1979 did not mark the first arrival of Coca Cola in China. The brand had actually already come to China in in 1927. By the 1940s, it sold over 1 million crates a year in Shanghai. But in 1949, business stopped as Mao’s communists took over China.

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Coca Cola outdoor ad in 1980s Shanghai.

In the 1980s, Coca Cola started to work with the government to set up ways to locally produce Coca Cola for Chinese consumers. On the marketing side, there was much to do; although many people were curious to try out the new drink, there were also many who preferred hot drinks over cold ones, and were not used to the strange taste of cola. Much of the success of Coca Cola in China can be ascribed to its marketing strategy.

Coca Cola in Chinese (kekou kele可口可乐), actually can be translated as ‘delicious happiness’.

To make the drink more popular, Coca Cola staff went to shops in Beijing to promote the beverage during weekends in 1983. They gave away Coca Cola balloons or chopsticks with every bottle of Coke, that cost 0.5 yuan ($0.07). It was the first promotional commercial activity in China since the death of Mao, and it was condemned by the government as “introducing American style commercialism”. They issued that “not a single bottle of Coke should be sold to Chinese”. The order lasted for a year, until Cola Cola set up its first joint venture in China in 1984.

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1988 Shanghai Coca Cola ad.

In 1985, the government officially allowed Coca Cola to sell its products to Chinese people.

In 2014, Coca Cola celebrated its 35th anniversary in China.
China is now the third-largest market for Coca Cola, and 140 million servings are sold every day.

Featured image: Man trying out Cola Cola in Beijing in 1981. At the time, one bottle was sold for 0.45 yuan ($0.07). When asked what the man thought of the taste, he replied: “It is so-so.”

By Manya Koetse

Sources:

Chen Yu (ed). 2014. 中国生活记忆 [‘China Remembers’, ‘Memories From Chinese Lives’]. Beijing: Zhongguo Qinggongye Chubanshe.

China Daily. 2008. “Fantastic Fizz.” http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/bizchina/2008-11/10/content_7190391.htm [24.9.15].

Coca Cola. 2015. “Celebrating 35 Years of Coca-Cola in China.” http://www.coca-colacompany.com/history/celebrating-35-years-of-coca-cola-in-china [24.9.15].

Sohu. 2015. http://mt.sohu.com/20150702/n416070181.shtml [24.9.15].

Zhou Ke 周可(ed). 2014. Wo de Guxiang Zai Bashi Niandai 我的故乡在八十年代 [The 1980s, My Homeland] (In Chinese). Beijing: New Weekly 新周刊.

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