Coke's New Design Direction

Five years ago, Coca-Cola's design chief was told: "We need to do more with design. Go figure it out." Now his labors are bearing fruit

When David Butler joined Coca-Cola (KO) almost five years ago, he was given, as he tells it, "the Post-it Note mandate: We need to do more with design. Go figure it out." Butler, who had come from a gig as director of brand strategy at the interactive marketing and consulting firm Sapient, had soon written up a 30-page manifesto laying out a design strategy for the company. But if Butler, who's now vice-president for design, has made an impact at the beverage giant, it's not because of some heady proclamation. Instead it's because he has learned the most effective way to implement design strategy at a company as large and complex as Coca-Cola: avoid the word "design" as much as possible.

"If I'm at a meeting with manufacturing people, I'll say: 'How can we make the can feel colder, longer?'," he says as an example. "Or, 'How can we make the cup easier to hold?'" In other words, he talks about the benefits of smart design in a language to which those he's talking to can relate. Based on several recent brand redesigns—including the new Coke identity work that won the Grand Prix at the Cannes Lions awards program in June—and innovations such as an aluminum bottle and a new family of coolers, this surreptitious approach seems to be working. Butler leads a team of 60 designers—a mix of graphic and industrial designers, some poached from companies such as Apple (AAPL), Nike (NKE), MTV (VIA), Target (TGT), and Electrolux—at four centers around the world. All are focused on what Butler describes as a "fix the basics" strategy.

The Old Simplicity Gone

While there are few companies with a richer design heritage than Coca-Cola, in recent years the company seemed to have lost its design savvy. The iconic Coke "contour" bottle, adorned with the globally recognized script and the simple ribbon graphic, for instance, had given way to a plastic bottle or aluminum can on which the logo had to compete against random bubble graphics, extraneous marketing messages, or seasonal images. When Butler reviewed the state of design at Coca-Cola on his arrival, evaluating everything from the branding created for the then-recent 2004 Olympics in Athens to the process that the company's 300-plus bottling partners went through to get approval for new bottle designs to the customer experience of buying a Coke from a vending machine, he found a lot that needed fixing. Coca-Cola was a global company with 450 brands, more than 300 different models of vending machines, innumerable bottling and retail partners, and no consistent global design standards.

It wasn't that the company had forgotten about design altogether. Former president Steven Heyer, who resigned in 2004 after being passed over for the CEO job, helped start Studio Red, a collaboration with hip New York design and architecture firm, Rockwell Group. As Tucker Viemeister, then creative director of Studio Red says: "Our mission was to be innovative in any aspect that we could. We had this gigantic canvas." Studio Red came up with lots of interesting projects: the Coke Cruiser (a scooter with a cooler at its front conceived as a mobile vendor at festivals or concerts) as well as a tasting salon, a retail environment where people could sample a new drink like Coke Zero. But many of them never made it beyond the concept stage.

"It wasn't necessarily easy to find a place for our ideas," says Viemeister, adding: "In big corporations there are lots of ideas—and you can't do all of them."

For Butler, the lesson was to avoid cool concepts that would never see the light of day. Instead of generating ideas and then trying to find a place for them, Butler addressed his efforts on identifying basic problems that design can solve. His strategy has focused on three areas critical to Coca-Cola—brand identity, user experience, and sustainability.

An Aluminum Bottle Feels Colder

Several of Butler and team's design efforts combine elements of all three. Consider the aluminum contour bottle, first introduced in 2005 and released again in a limited edition set of eight created by Chinese designers as part of the company's Olympics marketing. From a branding perspective, it is a sexy update of the classic glass bottle that feels more modern but is less expensive to produce. From a user experience perspective, the aluminum feels colder than glass and also has a re-sealable cap. And from a sustainability perspective, the aluminum bottle is manufactured using recycled material and is itself recyclable. Similarly, a new family of sleek, sculptural coolers gives the brand a bold presence, but also boasts a more ergonomic door handle, LED lighting, and other technologies that reduce energy usage by 30% to 40%.

The cooler project also illustrates the ways in which Butler has learned to work within the constraints of Coca-Cola's complex partner relationships. Coca-Cola doesn't own the coolers—they are bought by the various retail stores. While Coca-Cola would prefer to have the new coolers installed in all stores so as to have a consistent brand presence, the company can't force its retail partners to upgrade. For those stores not wanting to invest in all-new coolers, Butler's team designed a set of panels that can be attached to an older cooler to give it the modern look.

Another example of working within the peculiar constraints of Coca-Cola is a Web-based software tool that Butler calls the Design Machine and describes as "the Nike ID of internal design." The tool allows designers at the company's many bottling partners to create new bottle or can label designs or even promotional posters. Because of parameters built into the tool, the final design will always conform to the global standards set by the corporate design team. The neat internal use of Web 2.0 technology cuts back on the need for top-down control from the brand managers in Atlanta, allowing greater brand flexibility

A Witty Update

Butler and his team have also begun a review of the 450 brands in the company's portfolio, focusing first on megabrands such as Coke. The plum redesign commission went to the San Francisco office of the branding and packaging firm Turner Duckworth, which had previously worked on Coke Zero and Tab Energy, a relaunch of the old diet drink. "Coke is the iconic brand, the ideal design project," says principal David Turner. "Yet when we were first approached by Coke to work on the brand, we had mixed feelings." The concern was that the past decades of branding for the soda included so few examples of great design. Did that mean it would be impossible to get good design through the system?

Eventually, Turner's firm decided to take the job, and the resulting work— a cups-to-trucks redesign that replaced the cluttered imagery on the market with a simple update of Coke's classic branding—won the Grand Prix at Cannes. Turner says Butler and the design leaders at Coca-Cola North America "have tirelessly advocated for good design. That's really why the good stuff is happening."

Whether or not you call it "design," Coca-Cola is beginning to show some of the savvy that originally helped to make it the most widely recognized brand in the world.

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