If someone discovered Coke's secret formula, would it really matter?

Just this week a public radio show claimed to have the original recipe for Coca-Cola's (NYSE: KO) famous soda. "This American Life" host Ira Glass stated: "One of the most famously guarded trade secrets on the planet -- I have it right here and I am going to read it to you and read it to the world and make my case for why it is real, despite what Coca-Cola may say."

Glass explained that the original formula was discovered in a pharmacist's book of recipes and published in the Atlanta Journal Constitution in 1979. The recipe as published was clear enough to read. Glass was convinced that it was the original formula because it matched and completed an incomplete recipe from Coke's archives that became public.

It's all such a fascinating story, especially since the company has spent decades building the allure and myth of its secret formula -- dubbed 7X -- as the mystery behind the company's magic elixir.

But it's not.

The secret of Coca-Cola's success -- as every graduate of Marketing 101 could tell you -- is between your ears. It's what Warren Buffett, Coke's largest shareholder, calls "mindshare." That's Coke's brand. When you're consuming Coke, you're drinking flavored sugar water that has been given meaning by advertising -- and paying a premium for doing so. If 7X were the real reason behind Coke's success, then it would inspire every two-bit entrepreneur to crack the code in order to score riches.

But what you have is a variety of deep-pocketed competitors -- from PepsiCo (NYSE: PEP) and Hansen Natural (Nasdaq: HANS) to private labels from Wal-Mart (NYSE: WMT) -- that have established their own brands. Their drinks compete on different propositions, such as Pepsi's long-running appeal to youth or Wal-Mart's pitch to frugality. Coke pitches its classic, all-American happy feel, while Hansen's drinks appeal to those who want energy.

The fruity recipe discovered by Glass tastes little like today's Coke. But that doesn't mean it's not the original recipe. A Coca-Cola rep insisted that the secret formula was safe, locked in a vault in Atlanta. So the original recipe may have been discovered, but it's not the "real thing."

Jim Royal, Ph.D., does not own shares in any company mentioned here. Coca-Cola is a Motley Fool Inside Value choice. Hansen Natural is a Motley Fool Rule Breakers recommendation. Coca-Cola and PepsiCo are Motley Fool Income Investor selections. Motley Fool Options has recommended a diagonal call position on PepsiCo. The Fool owns shares of Coca-Cola and PepsiCo. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.