Coke: a simple story

Patrick Burgoyne talks to Pio Schunker, the man behind the recent creative renaissance at Coca-Cola, and wonders whether its return to simplicity will be followed by other brands

Turner Duckworth’s redesign for Coca-Cola has won a lot of top awards over the past year: the first design Grand Prix at Cannes, a D&AD Yellow Pencil and, of course, a place in the Creative Review Annual. Some people wonder what all the fuss is about: ‘It’s just a tidying up exercise, stripping Coke back to its iconic essentials, what’s creative about that?’ they ask. But for anyone who has had to deal with a large organisation and all the political machinations that entails, Turner Duckworth’s Coke project is exemplary: it’s an all-too-rare instance of a big player doing the right thing, junking all the gratuitous visual nonsense that clutters so much FMCG packaging in favour of purity and simplicity. Some have even intimated that, so rare is it for a huge brand to buy such thoughtful design, the awards should really have gone to the client. That client is Pio Schunker.

Schunker joined Coke from the New York office of ad agency Ogilvy five years
ago to help revitalise a brand that he admits had lost its way. He now glories in the title of ‘senior vice president for creative excellence, North America’. He and his team oversee Coke’s relations with its advertising agencies and design consultancies, a roster that includes Wieden + Kennedy, Mother, Crispin Porter + Bogusky and Turner Duckworth. Schunker says that he deliberately targeted independents to work with. The big net­works, he says, were just giving Coke what they thought it wanted, not what they them­selves believed in. He wanted to work with agencies and design studios who would, rather than simply “stick around for the pay cheque”, believe in what they were doing and walk away if they didn’t get to do it. His views on what he wants from his partners might seem like music to the ears of our readers. He is adamant that he doesn’t want yes men, willing to do anything that the client wants, but strong -willed, committed people who are unafraid to express an opinion: “You want an agency to act as your conscience,” he says, “to say ‘that’s crap, you shouldn’t do that, we’re not doing it’. We value them far more if they value themselves – if they just become doormats we lose respect for them,” he says.

Schunker is quite scathing in his asses-sment of the behaviour of many potential suitors: “Most agencies come to you with an execution that they want to sell you and then post-rationalise why you should be buying it. Digital agencies are the worst – why exactly does a soda belong on Facebook?” Big networks, he has said, typi­cally present themselves as the 360 degree solution “but tend to be a loose confeder­ation of completely disjointed companies that are so busy fighting with each other to figure out who gets the business, they can’t be bothered to figure out how to solve our business [issues].”

He has described his Creative Excellence department (the name, he admits, was met with much derision when first announced) as ‘translators’: agencies and designers pitch ideas to them rather than to marketing managers. In turn, they champion the work internally as it wends its often interminable way through all the channels within the organisation. For Turner Duckworth, this meant an 18-month wait between pitching an initial design idea for the revamped Coke can to the first sign-off. During that period, Schunker’s team was steadily piloting the idea through the Coke labyrinth: their biggest battle, convincing Coke marketers that, no, it wasn’t necessary to have a picture of some bubbles on the side of the can. People know Coke is a fizzy drink.

An exasperated Turner Duckworth was on the point of throwing in the towel after nine months of seemingly going nowhere, prompting Schunker to fly to San Francisco to reassure them. “I had to say ‘trust me, things are moving even though it doesn’t look like it. Stick with us: every day we are moving one centimetre forward.’”

As testament to the success of his department’s internal advocacy, Schunker claims that 70% of what Turner Duckworth originally pitched to Coke is now in produc­tion – for Wiedens that figure is closer to 90%, astonishing for a company of Coke’s size and previous conservatism. Getting rid of those bubbles was, says Turner Duckworth co-founder David Turner, “emblematic of what we were trying to do – to stop treating Coke like just another drink and return it to its iconic status”. Once that battle was won, the going got easier.

Schunker says he doesn’t like to talk about the competition but the contrast with Pepsi couldn’t be more marked. While Coke has confidently returned to its iconic red and white, Pepsi is introducing myriad variations in can design and the clumsy ‘smile’ logo from Arnell Group. Turner Duckworth describes its work in straightforward terms, while Arnell “examines the space between brand assets and consumer desire” to “help brands capture and realise differentiation by exploiting a unique emotional dimension”. The leak online recently of a painful Arnell document that attempted to justify the smile logo by referring to concepts such as “the dynamic of perimeter oscillations” and placing it in a 5000-year progression of human endeavour is a perfect example of the ludicrous post-rationalisation that so many branding firms pursue in order to justify the stratospheric costs of relatively simple concepts and that Schunker says he abhors.

While Pepsi attempts to situate its logo as the logical successor to Euclid and Pythagoras (I kid you not), Coke’s Wieden-influenced approach is based on a simple positioning that drinking a Coke is a small moment of happiness – no big deal, just something that might make you feel good.

It’s only packaging, but there is some­thing fundamentally more honest in a drinks can that just features the company name and logo: no more starbursts, drop shadows or gradients, just solid red and solid white. Coming from a company that, around the world, has behaved abominably at times (and has been accused of everything from using child labour in El Salvador, to depleting water resources in Columbia and India to, most recently and emphatically denied by Coke, that it used prison labour in China), it may be hard to equate Coca-Cola with honesty and humility, but that is what comes across.

Turner reveals that, in early discussions with Coke, he held up Nike and Apple as examples of brands that see the value of simple, confident design. Now that Coke has stripped away the extraneous clutter too, how many others will follow? Not everyone has such iconic roots to return to, but I for one would hope that other brands and their designers are looking at what Coke has done and wondering whether they too could afford to lose a bubble or two.

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