BrandingFeature

Design Icon: Coca-Cola

Coca-Cola's famous logo is widely regarded as the most successful brand in the world. But how did it become so iconic? Michael Burns investigates this global phenomenon.

Coca-Cola possesses one of the most recognised brand designs in history. It's not only the trademark design of that white typeface on that particular shade of red that makes it so iconic, but also the equally famous bottle.

Now almost over 120 years old and selling in more than 200 countries, the brand is regarded as the biggest in the world and has come top of an Interbrand poll of all global brands for the fourth time in a row. It is now estimated that Coca-Cola's brand is worth a whopping $67.5bn (£39bn).

Invented in 1886 by John Pemberton, the drink started life as Pemberton's French Wine Coca. But in response to local prohibition laws, a non-alcoholic version developed and a new name was created by Pemberton's partner Frank Mason Robinson.

Robinson had the prescience to see that Coca- Cola's two C's would stand out in any ad campaign and it was him, too, who chose the logo's distinctive cursive script. The typeface used, known as Spencerian script, was developed in the mid 19th century and was the dominant form of formal handwriting in the United States during that period.

Urban myths
The logo's fairly casual beginnings are very much at odds with the rumours that have since surrounded it. One concerns the supposedly anti-Islamic phrase that appears in Arabic when the logo is reversed, while another suggests that when viewed on its side the logo depicts a man snorting cocaine. Widely debunked though these rumours are, the power of the brand makes it an easy target for such mythology.

Cocaine, though present in trace amounts in early patent medicines including Coca-Cola, was drunk in the 1880s and not imbibed as a powder, so the image would not make sense even if Robinson had attempted to incorporate it. The anti-Islamic myth, however, was so pervasive and potentially damaging that in 2000 Egypt's Grand Mufti, the country's most senior religious authority, ruled in an official statement that the trademark did not injure Islam or Muslims directly or indirectly, and in fact such rumours would sorely impact on the livelihoods of the thousands of Egyptians employed by the company.

The whole package
Possibly as famous as the logo's typeface is the bottle, itself a registered trademark. Initially there was no set branding, but in response to a flood of imitations, a distinctive bottle was needed to make the product stand out. The original design brief stated that the bottle should be recognisable even by its component pieces if broken, and that its shape should be easily recognisable by touch in the dark or even when submerged in a bucket of ice.

As a result, a bottle design competition was launched in 1915 and won by Earl R Dean of the Root Glass Company in Indiana. The designers were inspired by the cocoa bean and transplanted its vertical grooves to the glass.

Georgia Green glass was used to create the bottle's trademark curves and the green-tinted contoured bottle was embossed with the Coca-Cola script. After several patent wrangles, the bottle's trademark status was eventually awarded in 1960.

But it is the ubiquity of Coca-Cola that made the design so recognisable across the US. By 1895 the drink was sold in every territory in the United States. So when the company ramped up its branding strategies during the thirties and forties, each component of the Coca-Cola design quickly developed into the superbrand we know today.

The brand's colour, the now familiar Coca-Cola red, remains a highly important component of this design classic. White cursive text sat on a bright red background has since been used for almost all of Coca-Cola's rival brands (with the notable exception of Pepsi), and recently Quibla Cola and Mecca Cola, drinks targeted primarily at Muslim consumers as an alternative to the US-based Coca-Cola, have traded on the brand image for more political reasons.

Did Coke inspire Santa?
Perhaps one of the most enduring legends of the power of the brand has been the suggestion that the modern version of Santa Claus was a by-product of Coca-Cola's advertising. However, depictions of a red-suited and white-bearded Father Christmas have been evident in the UK since the 17th century. In the US, too, the likes of American Civil War artist Thomas Nast drew the figure from the mid-1800s, with no standardisation of colour, features or stature.

Coca-Cola first featured Santa Claus in its advertisements in the twenties, which were drawn in a style faithful to the Germanic Nast Santa. It wasn't until the thirties, when the artist Haddon Sundblom took over illustration duties at Coca-Cola, that the marketing began to make any sort of impact. Happily for Coca-Cola, Santa's red and white colour combination went well with its own logo and Sundblom's highly popular Santa merrily toasted contoured green bottles for 35 years thereafter.

"The curvy script, roll-off-the-tongue name, bright red colouring and iconic bottle shape have made Coca-Cola the most famous brand on the planet," says James Wheatley, creative producer at Swamp. "It's certainly the most easily recognised logo ever, as proved by the 2000 billboard campaign, which featured close cropped sections of the logo and no other branding at all. A flash of red and a curved white line proved enough to get people thinking about their favourite fizzy pop."

RECOMMENDED WEBSITE: The Coca Cola Urban Legends reference page lifts the lid on those constantly circulating stories concerning the world's most famous soft drink. It's all here, from the original cocaine content of the drink itself to how many people working for the company actually know the details of its secret formula.

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