Five lessons in design from Coca-Cola

Daisy Doctor
By Daisy Doctor | 8 February 2017
Coca-Cola's Red Disc redesign

Coca-Cola has officially started to roll out its 'One Brand' packaging in Australia. It sees a complete redesign of the soft drink's branding across all packaging, advertising and communications, placing each Coca-Cola variant under a single visual identity system.

First announced almost a year ago when the brand revealed its new marketing strategy, the huge branding project required research, testing and planning to fine-tune the final design.

It needed to work across all global markets, and across all touchpoints, so how did one of the world's most recognisable brands work through the massive overhaul and what were the crucial factors in the process?

AdNews met with James Sommerville, Coca-Cola's VP of global design, while he was in Australia this month. Here are the five integral steps taken by Sommerville and his team which lead to the biggest single design change in the brand's 130 year history.

Why the redesign
“It's about being true to our brand”

A global brand redesign always has a catalyst. For Coca-Cola it was the fragmentation of its visual colour palette across the Life, Zero and Diet variants, which each had a different brand identity. As a result, Coke's iconic red brand had become “diluted”.

Sommerville had previously worked on Coke at a design agency, and saw that across the portfolio various designers had "put their stamp” on the brand which meant it was chaotic with different colours and logos for different products and events. The customer's ability to navigate through a supermarket aisle also troubled him.

Looking to the future, it was agreed that more than anything, the brand needed to remain red and hero that.

“We shouldn’t throw a rainbow of colour at it, we should be true to our brand and represent it in new ways. I saw across our system... what was systematically working, for me it wasn't creatively working, and I couldn’t engage with it,” he says.

“We'd successfully created all these sub-brands, but in doing so we’d taken away the equity. We were pushing people away with the sub-variants, not inviting them into the brand. Where we used to have a billboard effect from the power of our equity in red, we'd actually just gotten smaller as time went by. After green [packaging for Coke Life] what would it be? We needed to create a long term strategy. We could fix the basics but we needed something bigger than that,” he says.

Strategic design process
“It was more about the thinking and the ideas”

Rather than diving in head-first Coca-Cola put a firm importance on a two-step strategical redesign and testing things live in market over a period of 12 months. Not every stage would be right, but it was a part of the evolution. The first step was a “spring clean” of the pack design, cleaning it up, introducing the horizontal branding on cans.

The second step was more interesting, according to Sommerville, and while some of the design ideas it came up with were “terrible” from a design point of view, they were “strategically interesting”.

A multitude of different samples were trialled and what Coke found was that consumers responded really well to every Coke having a red base colour.

“Marcos de Quinto [Coca-Cola global CMO] kept reminding me 'don't look at it for design, look at it for strategic intent'. There were pluses and minuses and we needed to optimise it but we knew [red] was working.”

So the team, and five deign agencies - none of which had worked with the brand before - began testing designs that championed a singular colour in parallel to tests live in market.

“It was more about the thinking and the ideas – none of these ideas made the cut, none of them are where we are today but it was about the process of arriving where we are today. A lot of designers will jump straight into execution but what we needed was a device that would grow and grow ultimately to our destination of being all red. What was missing [before] was that there was no device – from a system point of view we needed something that could evolve over three to five years in different markets”

Back to the archives
“130 years is a playground for designers”

The first step of the redesign sent Sommerville and his team to the basement, quite literally, to scour Coca-Cola's vast archives. In particular a book of brand guidelines from the 1970s that focussed on a unique set of patterns; the bright red colour, the curved font and iconic bottle appealed to him and he says “the simplicity of the graphic work was way ahead of its time”.

The stories behind some of Coke's brand assets also appealed, such as the ribbon icon, which was based on the negative space created when two glass bottles were propped next to each other and the hand painted posters of “the red lady”. Sommerville also found inspiration from Archie Lee, an art director with the brand's agency D'Arcy Advertising in the 1930s. It was Lee who originally saw the potential of the red disc in Coke's communication.

Lee used the disc as a “beacon amongst the visual noise” so that thirsty customers could navigate themselves to the 'real thing' in cluttered stores.

“We loved looking at the things we got absolutely wrong as well as what was successful. This red circle was used right from the very beginning, but it wasn’t used consistently. If were looking at the brand in a different way from a different angle, its always been there. [Archie Lee] worked out we could take this red disc and use it as a beacon through all the noise to stand out,” says Sommerville.

“There are wonderful stories about how some of the assets this organisation has came to be. We went to the archives and we literally reinterpreted the past. We were trying to keep hold of the essence of the historical but move it forward. When we think about the past, we respect it but we have to take it to a new space.

Shaping the disc
“The tip of the iceberg”

Once it had landed on the red disc, Coke needed to make sure the design was accessible for every market around the world and could be rolled out in a way that made sense to consumers.

“Coca-Cola has different levels of maturity, we’ve been in existence in different countries longer than others,” he explains. This meant that a blanket roll out wouldn't work. It needed a design that could be adopted, and adapted, depending on market needs.

Sommerville talks about 'didactic” design which allows for different stages to be introduced gradually to educate consumers rather than a final end point being forced on every market immediately.

The red risk, which Sommerville says is just the tip of the iceberg, is called the 'Rising disc' by Coke because it can rise up the packaging and offer more, or less, red depending on what will work in each market.

“We started to focus all the agencies on the red disc and the great thing about it is that we can scale it, we can reduce it, use more silver for Diet, more black for Zero, or more green for Life,” he says.

“When we first landed on the rising disc there were different interpretations of the circle... but if you peel everything away, the biggest change irrespective of the disc or shape, is the red. And people are seeing a very positive response from their consumers in their respective market.”

Designing for longevity
“We can change it, it's not a static, lifeless red disc”

As one of the world's largest brands, Coca-Cola is a “massive machine” of continuous advertising and sponsored events. As a result the brand has to stretch and evolve to fit all of its partnerships and communications now and in the future. Sommerville's answer to this is 'Red Disc Plus', a concept that allows the disc itself to be adopted and modified across endless cultural movements and events.

“We [designers] get bored very quickly, we like to redesign something every year, what were trying to do now is encourage our system to just take these as place holders. The red disc is the starting point... we're pushing all the equity back to the circle at the top and not redesigning... wherever you are in the world whatever the time in the year, it's there, rather than multiple logos in market,” he says.

For example, early designs for Ramadan communications see the red disc transformed into the shape of a moon whereas for FIFA World Cup, the disc can be morphed into a football and for Christmas, a decorative bauble. It can also adapt across new variants that are launched.

“It's not reinventing it, it's just layering onto a conversation. We can change it - it doesn’t need to be a static, lifeless red disc.”

Have something to say on this? Share your views in the comments section below. Or if you have a news story or tip-off, drop us a line at

Sign up to the AdNews newsletter, like us on Facebook or follow us on Twitter for breaking stories and campaigns throughout the day.

Read more about these related brands, agencies and people

comments powered by Disqus