Coca-Cola's Holy Grail

In a vault in the bowels of a SunTrust Bank in Atlanta lies one of the most sacred secrets in the business world: the 120-year-old formula for Coca-Cola. That is the one certainty about the mysterious recipe. Everything else surrounding it--the need for a vote by Coke's board of directors to open the vault, for example--may be urban legend. Attempts to confirm additional information with the Coca-Cola Co. are met with an obvious reply: "Well, then it wouldn't be a secret," says company spokeswoman Crystal Walker.

Myth or not, at least three people recently risked jail time to breech the company's air of mystery. Ibrahim Dimson, 30, and Edmund Duhaney, 43, could each face up to 10 years in prison after pleading guilty last week in a plot to sell Coca-Cola trade secrets to Pepsi for $1.5 million. The men were co-conspirators in a scheme allegedly hatched by Joya Williams--a former administrative assistant at Coca-Cola's Atlanta headquarters. The trio's shenanigans fizzled when Pepsi alerted Coca-Cola, which then contacted the FBI. Williams, 41, who had worked at Coca-Cola for 14 months and maintains her innocence, is awaiting trial.

The alleged caper involved unspecified documents and samples of yet-to-be introduced products, not the secret formula. But the incident is sparking fresh questions about whether the formula is an actual trade secret or mystical marketing.

History suggests it's a mixture of both. In 1886, John Pemberton, a pharmacist, started Coca-Cola with a recipe he created in his lab. Pemberton sold the concoction a few years later to Asa Candler, a businessman, who helped transform the soft drink into a success, which in turn made competitors and consumers curious about what exactly went into the irresistible drink. Some swore the main ingredient was cocaine, a claim the Coca-Cola Co. denies. Others were fascinated with rumors surrounding "7X"--the code name for the blend of flavors in the beverage. By 1919, when the Candlers sold Coca-Cola to a group of investors, the secrecy surrounding the formula had become a marketing tool. The new owners sealed the formula's place in American pop culture when they placed the recipe in the Atlanta vault.

Experts say it's not impossible to decipher the formula and effectively clone Coca-Cola. "Anyone could buy a Coke in a shop and do some powerful [chemical] analysis and have a Coke match ... but not 100 percent," says Steven Pearce, a chemist and the president of the British Society of Flavourists Council. Others in the industry say copying it is pointless because it's not the secret, stupid--it's the branding that has made Coke such a success. Of course, Pepsi, whose formula presumably is not in a vault, isn't doing so badly, either.