Coca-Cola is a great business -- I think we can all agree on that. But what we may not agree on is why it's a great business. Sure, it sells lots of caffeinated sugar water, but -- and this may come as a shock to you -- soft drinks aren't the most important thing Coca-Cola sells. (And no, it's not Dasani, either.)

Investing legend Charlie Munger got to the heart of the matter when he asked former Coca-Cola President Don Keough just what exactly Coke's business is. Keough responded, "To create and maintain conditioned reflexes."

See, any business can sell a product. But great businesses know how to influence consumers in a way that keeps them buying products -- and, in the process, generates lots of value for investors.

Some influencers
The stock market rewards companies that know how to create such solid value. Just look at what these companies have done over time:


IPO Date

Return Since IPO

Coca-Cola (NYSE:KO)

Jan. 2, 1970*


Electronic Arts (NASDAQ:ERTS)

March 26, 1990


McDonald's (NYSE:MCD)

Jan. 2, 1970*


Starbucks (NASDAQ:SBUX)

June 26, 1992


Hershey (NYSE:HSY)

July 1, 1985


*Since earliest available price data (Jan. 2, 1970).
**All data provided by Capital IQ.

Electronic Arts, the video game maker, keeps gamers entertained -- and looking forward to the next version of its games. As consoles become more powerful, so do the games, causing gamers to open their wallets time and time again.

McDonald's food is a delivery mechanism for a conditioned response. Americans love their burgers and fries (mainly because of the salt and sugar), and the experience is the same whether you're in Washington State or Washington, D.C. Is it any wonder that Coke products are used to reinforce those responses?

Starbucks brings coffee and cool together to keep its customers flowing through the doors for tall, grande, or venti cups of conditioned responses. Starbucks customers are fanatics (dare I say addicts?) who keep coming back for more.

Chocolate also has its addicts -- I mean fans. Hershey works hard to control the taste and texture of its chocolate. And it knows a thing or two about marketing, making sure customers think Hershey when their sweet tooth kicks in.

Sure, these companies are great consumer conditioners, but more importantly, they've crushed the market.

A budding star?
It's not all about the well-known companies. Build-A-Bear (NYSE:BBW), for example, may not be a household name, but it too uses conditioned reflexes to its advantage. Chief Executive Bear Maxine Clark (yes, that is her title) isn't just selling bears; she's selling a bond between children and their love of stuffed animals. Everything about the concept, right down to the store layouts, works to create bonds and keep kids (their parents' wallets in tow) coming back for more. No wonder my daughter's bed is full of furry creatures.

The Foolish bottom line
Great businesses sell an experience, and this sure isn't breaking news to David or Tom Gardner. By finding budding businesses brimming with potential -- including Electronic Arts and Starbucks -- for their Motley Fool Stock Advisor investing service, they've helped members handily outperform the market since the depths of the bear market in 2002.

Do you want your investments to beat the market? Sorry, silly question. Well, if you want to join David, Tom, and thousands of Stock Advisor community members who are adding great businesses to their portfolios, click here. The 30-day trial is free and you're under no obligation to subscribe.

Fool David Meier does not own shares in any of the companies mentioned. Coca-Cola is a Motley Fool Inside Value recommendation.The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.