Royal Crown Cola (abbreviated as RC Cola) was invented by a specific grocery wholesaler and pharmacist Claud A. Hatcher in 1905. It was created for the Cole-Hampton-Hatcher grocery store as an alternative to the more popular brand, Coca-Cola, to avoid the latter’s high cost. In its 115 years old history, RC Cola has proved to be one of the most innovative brands around by being the first in the industry to come up with products like canned soda, caffeine-free soda, 16-ounce soda, and diet cola. However, RC Cola has simply not been able to reach the heights it could have.
In an industry dominated by Pepsi and Coke, what led to the emergence of a new brand? Also, why, despite its innovations and a relatively rich century-old history, could RC Cola never prove to be more than just a mediocre soda brand?
The early days
In the early 1900s, the Hatcher grocery store sold large amounts of Coke to their customers. It led Claud to believe that he was entitled to get a special discount from the distributors to return his loyalty and contribution to Coca-Cola. The request, however, was rejected by the local Coke distributor, which led to a disgruntled Claud pledging that he would come up with his soda brand.
Months were spent in the grocery store basement – trying to come up with a suitable and acceptable replacement for the Coke. Finally, he found the correct formula, and Claud Hatcher came up with the Royal Crown Ginger Ale. The makers soon got innovative enough and laced the market with other appealing flavors: lemon, strawberry, and cherry (marketed as Chero-Cola). Unfortunately, these products put RC Cola in direct competition with the brand it was meant to be a cheaper replacement of.
The lawsuits and the effects
In the early 1900s, Coca-Cola was the dominant force in the soda industry, returning handsome profits. However, several others were attracted to the relatively unchallenged industry and started making their products. Coke, to maintain its dominance, began suing these copycat companies for trademark infringement. According to the book by Tristan Donovan, Fizz: How Soda Shook Up The World, Coke sued more than 500 companies during this period and ended up on the winning side more often than not.
Claud Hatcher’s Chero-Cola fell prey to one of these lawsuits, and Hatcher fought the lawsuit for the better part of two years. In the meantime, the company had been expanded to more than 700 franchise bottlers in different parts of the country. However, in 1923, he lost the lawsuit, which forced him to remove the name “Cola” from his product name, leading to a subsequent drop in sales. The Great Depression, too, caused a decrease in sales.
In 1933, Claud Hatcher died. However, this proved to be a blessing in disguise for the company, as his replacement, HR Mott, proved to be an astute businessman. He put the company’s focus on the best-sellers and undertook several measures, leading to a tenfold increase in the turnover of Royal Crown Cola Company.
The middle of the twentieth century proved to be the best time for the company since its inception. And another court ruling in 1944 had allowed them to use “Cola” in its title yet again. So, from magazine covers to television screens, RC Cola ads beamed everywhere, featuring stars like Bing Crosby, Shirley Temple, and Lucille Ball. “You Bet RC Tastes Best!” – they declared.
This has always been a brand that hasn’t been shy to develop new things, be it in product manufacturing or marketing. They conducted nationwide taste tests, pitting RC directly against Pepsi and Coke’s industry pioneers, and declared themselves winners. It was the first time the industry had seen such a promotional stunt, and the majority of the people believed the results.
As mentioned earlier, RC Cola was also the pioneering company in introducing Diet Cola. However, the idea was inspired by a product named as No-Cal (which is the first instance of sugar-free soda in history). RC Cola recognized an increased demand for healthier choices among the consumers and came up with Diet Rite a few years later, a drink it had pinned high hopes on and one which didn’t disappoint. Within a couple of years of its launch, Diet Rite proved to be a massive success and found itself at number four on the sales leader-board, behind the market forerunners – Coca-Cola, Pepsi, and the RC Cola. The consumers seemed to have accepted the product wholeheartedly, and RC Cola finally seemed to have found its breakthrough product.
Cyclamate, a hazard?
With an apparent win-win situation for the consumers and the manufacturers, one section of people was not much pleased with the advent of Diet Coke – the sugar industry. They had spent years pumping sugar into the soda industry, and there was a beverage that did away with sugar entirely. So they started looking for legal ways to undermine the Diet Rite and the other diet drinks.
It began in the 1960s – studies indicating that cyclamate was hazardous and carcinogenic in animals. Initially, the companies dismissed the research, but as the decade wore on, the publishing of two particular studies led to more decisive blows for the company. First, disturbing results concerning experiments conducted with cyclamate in chickens and rats were published, linking the item with increased risks of tumors. These results made headlines across the country and led to the Food and Drug Association (FDA) being forced to remove its safe classification for cyclamate. As a result, the Diet Coke industry collapsed, and Royal Crown Cola, on its part, could never fully recover from this blow.
According to Donovan, this was a direct result of lobbying by the sugar industry, who reportedly paid $600,000 in funding for the studies that doomed cyclamate. It was virtually impossible, he writes, for a regular Diet Coke drinker to be ever able to imbibe the exact amounts of cyclamate, which could prove to be hazardous. For instance, to get the same amount of cyclamate as the rats, one would have to eat 500 diet drinks a day, Donovan writes.
But what allowed such skeptical results to lead to the ban of a substance? A legal loophole called the Delaney Clause was being pointed to, which required the FDA to ban any substance which could “induce cancer in man, or, after tests, found to induce cancer in animals.” Although a well-meaning clause, it doesn’t outline the amounts of any particular ingredient, which eventually led to the scrapping of the law.
What began was a downfall of RC Cola and a meteoric rise in the image of the other two brands – Pepsi and Coke, so much so that it was difficult for any other brand to survive in the industry. Due to mishandling by new owners and ill-planned investments at fruit juice industries, fast-food chains, and home furnishing companies, RC Cola was merely a shadow of what it had been during its glory days of the Diet Rite.
In the late 1990s, RC did attempt up its sales after managing to find a new owner. Still, its ways of trying to reserve shelves at the supermarkets for their own products seemed to backlash as Coke and Pepsi simply had more resources and, in having so, managed to shut out RC Cola from the industry completely.
It is hardly a thing to be proud of being pioneers in an industry that has been on a steady decline for the better part of the last two decades. Even industry leaders are looking for innovative ways to stay relevant. Consumers no longer crave full-calorie cold drinks but are migrating to the healthier options available.
However, RC Cola almost proved more than what it is today – a good yet not preferred soda brand. Had the cyclamate, and consequently, RC’s signature product – the Diet Rite, not been banned, the brand could well have gone on to have a more significant impact in the longer run.
Frequently Asked Questions
Q1. Does RC Cola have a formidable presence in the international market?
- The RC Cola is currently being sold in about 70 countries around the world. However, it remains a best-seller in a few countries, including the Philippines and other Oceania countries. The popularity in these markets is mainly due to its lower price in comparison to the competition. For example, a survey conducted in the Philippines showed that 41% of the consumers preferred RC Cola as it was cheaper than Pepsi and Coca-Cola.
Q2. What stands in the future for RC Cola?
- The soda industry alone will not be enough for a company of RC’s stature to sustain. Identifying that, the company has launched several innovations and has made considerable investments in industries like coffee, food chains, etc. In addition, the company is trying to re-establish its markets in areas where it once lost out in.