Water, sugar & optimism

The strength of Coca-Cola’s visual identity is distilled in a new show of archive material as the brand celebrates 125 years

There’s a joke at Coca-Cola HQ that the only time an accountant did anything good at the company was when Frank Robinson came up with the name and logotype back in 1886. Robinson was a bookkeeper for John Pemberton, the inventor of the Coca-Cola syrup, and, like most accountants of the time, had been taught to write in Spencerian script. He liked the way the C’s worked together when he wrote the two words out and, after a brief competition arranged by the four partners, his name and design were chosen and the drink went on sale from a soda fountain at Jacob’s Pharmacy in downtown Atlanta.

Now, 125 years on, the Design Museum in London is staging a mini-exhibition that in part celebrates the longevity of Robinson’s design, which has changed very little in that time (the famous ribbon device that ran beneath the script, for example, was only added in 1970). Looking at the display in the museum’s glass tank by the Thames with Ted Ryan, the Coke archivist who helped ship all the objects here, the Coca-Cola brand has certainly moved slowly but surely over the decades, but has ended up as one of the most recognisable in the world.

Ria Hawthorn, curator of the exhibition, believes the strength of the Coca-Cola identity has its roots in the way the company established itself in the 1880s and how the brand was able to develop organically. “Coca-Cola built on a fortunate beginning in a positive way, strengthening its identity through consistency,” she says. “It was the first franchise, with the main Coca-Cola company selling the syrup to bottlers who held the licences to distribute the bottled Coke in a particular area. The unique way that the company is structured led to the commissioning of the bottle design at a very early stage, in order to unify the packaging and prevent imitations.”

Hawthorn’s intention with the display at the museum was to look behind the enormity of visual material that surrounds Coca-Cola, revealing the strength of its design as applied to logos and bottles, and show how the company has communicated the brand across the world. “The brand manuals are especially significant and haven’t previously been displayed in public,” she says. “Coke is a pioneer in this field, producing its first manual for signs in 1923 and international brand guidelines from the early 30s.” From the 1950s on to the 70s, Ryan adds, the manuals were quick to incorporate the look of cans, bottling plants, uniforms and trucks. “Consistency became the hallmark because we had the world’s most identifiable logo,” he says, “and the most identifiable packaging with the contoured bottles.”

A selection of these bottles forms the backdrop to the museum’s display and reveals a chronology of fashion and product design. On the far left of the row of 13 is the 1899 Hutchinson bottle, Coke’s first, a sturdy straight-up looking thing. Then, a couple of bottles in, something strange and a little alluring happens. “In 1914 the brief went out to design a bottle that you could recognise in the dark, or even lying broken on the ground,” Ryan explains. “So Earl R Dean at The Root Glass Company in Terre Haute in Indiana came up with the ‘contour bottle’ shape. He based it on a cocoa pod – cover up the neck and the base and you’ll see it – but they found that it wouldn’t fit in the bottling machines, so slimmed it down in 1916.”

Since then the contoured bottle has become a stable part of the overall identity, though as glass was gradually replaced with plastic, the design has certainly lost some of its charm. But for Ryan, whose job it is to source as much visual material relating to Coca-Cola as he can, each and every aspect of the brand’s heritage is important and worth a place in the huge basement archive in Atlanta. Earlier this year, McCann Erickson Spain brought this vast collection to life via the site, theverybestofcocacola.com, where users can browse the shelves and find out about some of its highlights.

The archive is used by the company in a number of different ways. “The first area of the space is for our brand managers,” says Ryan. “If you’re working on Fanta and want to know about its history, or bring your agency in, we can set that up. It’s also used as a teaching tool; newly hired marketers are sent once a quarter on the archive tour. It’s the Coke DNA system.” It’s also a great resource for Coke’s designers, to the extent that a photography guide was once devised based on the aesthetics of the Yes Girl painting in an attempt to capture the spirit expressed in the work. Ryan puts it simply:”Coke has a secret formula, a good tasting drink, a recognisable logo and a bottle. Other than that it’s water, sugar and optimism.”

In terms of sourcing the materials, Ryan has close links with Coke’s many marketing teams but also buys from auctions and collector’s groups. “I’m actually running low on space cans,” he adds at this point, alluding to the 1985 special editions of New Coke that were – in a relatively positive PR move for the new drink recipe, compared to the disastrous one happening back on Earth – served aboard space shuttle Challenger. In addition to Coca-Cola collateral, Ryan has also picked up a few objects that reference Coke – an Andy Warhol and a Peter Blake, no less, plus a couple of bottles created by US folk artist, Howard Finster.

One of the treasures of the collection, also on show at the Design Museum, has to be the book that documents the construction of the first Piccadilly Circus sign that Coke created in 1954. “It was too wonderful to exclude,” says Hawthorn, “as it has some beautiful photographs of how modern the sign looked at the time. It also signifies the beginnings of Coke’s post-war, truly global, reach.” For the Design Museum’s public programme manager, Michael Czerwinski, the design story behind Coca-Cola is a blueprint for much of modern marketing. “We think of this strong attitude to brand identity as a relatively new concept,” he says, “but the story isn’t a recent one; Coca-Cola has demonstrated that it in fact dates from the late 19th century. From a design perspective, there’s an enormous amount to be learned here.”

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