13: It’s the Real Thing

Coca-Cola (1940-)
D’arcy/McCann Erickson

Coca-Cola’s ‘It’s the Real Thing’ campaign was a way of consolidating the vast swathe of changes being made to the brand as it entered the 1970s. Coke’s then brand manager, Ira C Herbert, heralded it as a new direction that “responds to research which shows that young people seek the real, the original and the natural as an escape from phoniness.”

Ideas of authenticity aside, the actual line had been a part of the Coke story since the 1940s (it appears on several painted signs created when the account was held by the D’Arcy agency) and was revisited long after the lead campaign broke in 1969 – ‘Can’t Beat The Real Thing’ in 1991 and ‘Make It Real’ in 2005, for example. But studio Lippincott & Margulies’s rebranding work for Coca-Cola, which began in the mid-1960s under the codename ‘Project Arden’, was four years in the making and marked the largest ever programme of its kind. It incorporated everything from identity and packaging, vehicle livery, uniforms and stationery, to the brand’s advertising and communications strategies.

New graphics included a bold curve design known as the ‘dynamic contour’ which reflected the familiar shape of the Coke bottle; and a tweaked logotype that sat within a clean square of Standard Red. This identity system was then brought into a new TV campaign from McCann Erickson, which used close-ups of still imagery depicting moments of ‘real life’ as shot by a range of photographers, including Jay Maisel, Peter Turner and Dick Olsen, who were well known for conveying a candid aesthetic in their work.

To complement this obsession with reflecting reality – or, at least, how Coke was perceived as part of its consumers’ everyday lives – in 1971 the agency’s creative director Bill Backer penned perhaps the most famous aspect of the campaign. His inherently catchy song, I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke, was initially a radio spot recorded by the New Seekers, but after a lucklustre response Backer insisted it form the centrepiece of a big budget TV commercial, too. British band The Fortunes had already sung the ‘It’s the Real Thing’ jingle in 1969, but Backer’s tune, co-written with the agency’s Bill Davis and songwriter Roger Cook went on to become the stuff of advertising legend.

‘It’s the Real Thing’ was only subtly included in the last refrain of the TV song (“It’s the real thing, Coke is what the world wants today”) and appeared on screen at the end of the commercial. But the song itself proved enormously popular, sung by schoolchildren around the globe, when it was reworked as I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing and released as a single, first by the New Seekers and then by the Hilltop Singers.

Of course, ‘It’s the Real Thing’ also reaffirmed the importance Coke placed on being recognised as the ‘original’ cola. Founded in 1886 it was a mere 12 years older than Pepsi, but, for Coke, this would always prove to be a major point of difference.

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