Refreshing an iconic visual identity

During the 1880s, Atlanta pharmacist John Pemberton produced several patent concoctions including an alcoholic beverage he called French Wine Coca. In 1886 Pemberton developed another successful recipe by adding carbonated water to a mixture of kola nuts and coca leaves sweetened with sorghum and sugarcane; he then promoted the result, dubbed Coca-Cola, as a temperance drink.1

By the end of 1899 almost 36 million servings of Coca-Cola had been sold, primarily at soda fountains, for five cents apiece. That same year the company began bottling its carbonated beverage, enabling it to be marketed in stores and at ballparks without going flat. The popular drink went on to become the primary trademarked product of the company, while Coca-Cola grew for the next hundred years to become the world's most recognized brand name.2

Have a Coke or a Coca-Cola?

Over time Coca-Cola also became known by the abbreviated identity “Coke.” In the early 1960s the company began to introduce new products and containers; by the 1980s, it had formally adopted the Coke name for six products including Diet Coke and Cherry Coke.3

However, some of the package and container designs for these newer beverages detracted from consumer recognition of them as Coca-Cola. The differing graphics, shapes, and sizes made the Coca-Cola line look like competitors struggling against each other rather than a family of products from the same company.

The main issues facing the Coca-Cola Company were the integration of its new products, the inconsistency of packaging worldwide, and the incorporation of “Coke” within the Coca-Cola trademark. The company wanted to continue diversifying its line of soft drinks and at the same time unify its global visual identity.4

Coca-Cola’s management recognized the need for a consistent look and an updated design for all its packaging that would maintain the equity of the Coca-Cola brand.5 In late 1984 Landor Associates was selected to refresh the visual image of the product line, based on Landor’s previous success with label redesigns for Tab and Sprite.6

Preliminary stages

Landor began by studying the history and background of Coca-Cola’s graphics. The most notable visual element was the famous script signature created in 1887 by Frank Robinson, a business partner of John Pemberton’s. Since its early days, the Coca-Cola Company had placed this familiar signature on a variety of containers, ads, and coupons. Thanks to a comprehensive marketing strategy the classic script appeared, along with nostalgic illustrations of bygone scenes, in such diverse promotional milieus as magazines, billboards, merchandise, and the sides of buildings.7

Landor’s next step was to conduct surveys to determine the strengths and weaknesses of Coca-Cola’s visual appearance. This began with a series of interviews to assess Coca-Cola management’s perspective on the graphic design of its products and the strategic direction of the corporation. Then Landor evaluated consumers’ views of Coca-Cola products, using existing data as well as new marketing surveys. Finally, Landor examined Coca-Cola packaging and placement on retail shelves by “studying actual places of purchase and conducting visual audits … both of Coca-Cola products and competitors' products, from around the world.”8

Field audits were carried out in seven U.S. cities and 17 cities throughout Europe and Asia. Landor began this phase by reviewing all Coca-Cola products and their settings in the retail marketplace. Next, it focused on containers, cases, and systems of distribution and transportation. These audits showed both the significance and diversity of Coca-Cola’s packaging designs. Each visual component was different at every location, both in the United States and abroad. There were variations in the size of label imagery and in the color that should have represented Coca-Cola’s “one true red.” Landor concluded that “small variations here and there were chipping away at global synergy.”9

In the post-audit presentation to Coca-Cola’s management, Landor identified three visual design challenges. The first was to consolidate the various design components on packaging and containers to “reestablish the key identity elements” in Coca-Cola’s retail settings. The second was to deal with the nickname “Coke,” which lacked visual standards. Landor had found a twofold problem with the names: “While Coca-Cola is distinctive, it lacks impact. While Coke has impact, it lacks distinctiveness. Obviously, something had to be done to unify the two.”10

And Landor’s field audits had revealed an unexpected wrinkle: The individual packaging and label designs for the newer products actually kept consumers from identifying them as Coca-Cola. The Coca-Cola line, as displayed on store shelves, appeared to consumers as competing soft drinks. Landor concluded that “while individual container designs were adequate, the ‘family’ identity was slipping.”11

The design phase

Armed with these key insights gathered from Coca-Cola management, consumers, and retail settings, Landor was now ready to begin exploring design options. A team of designers was assembled and given carte blanche to consider all possible graphic solutions, ranging from modest and conservative to outrageous and radical. This team of 25 artists produced over 800 new designs that included different typestyles for “Coca-Cola” and “Coke,” as well as variations in the curve.12

The primary design element, naturally, was the historic Coca-Cola signature. Landor’s designers were well aware that with nearly 100 years built into the value of this signature, any radical change would not only erode confidence in Coca-Cola but also jeopardize product recognition, which in turn could affect consumer belief in the brand’s quality. Usually, updates to a company’s symbol consist of minor tweaks such as brightening colors or introducing new typefaces to keep the brand fresh in shoppers’ minds. Major alterations to the primary features of a well-known package, particularly traditional elements, can fuel a negative backlash from consumers.13

Landor’s designers understood the importance of preserving the Coca-Cola signature’s recognition value. The design eventually chosen succeeded in maintaining the historic value and equity of the trademark script with just a few subtle alterations, making it a bit “heavier and opened up slightly. Certain letters in the script were modified to accept the integration of the curve.”14 The most significant change was eliminating the upward stroke in the letter l to accommodate the upsweep of the new curve.

Next, Landor addressed the nickname “Coke,” which appeared in a serif typeface. Landor's team developed various prototypes placing the curve through the letters o or k, or incorporating it as a continuation of the capital C.

The remaining element to be modified was the curve itself, a graphic reminder of the distinctive hobble-skirt-contoured Coca-Cola bottle introduced in 1915.15 Again the designers experimented with shape, shadow, placement, and size. A new design element, a thin ribbon of silver, was added to Coca-Cola’s traditional red and white, opening up many more creative possibilities. Eventually the team came up with a basic design integrating “the curve into the lettering ... with colored shadow lines, such as a second color ... without changing the basic red and white stamp.... By retaining the red and white but simply adding a second color in the curve, this design element would provide designers with the opportunity to use a silver/gold color code in later system development.”16

The final design used serif type placed on a slight diagonal, with the curve through the letter e.17 Landor was able to strengthen the visual impact of the Coke nickname by supporting it with the design components of the signature, colors, and curve.18

A clear winner

Walter Landor presented 11 designs to Coca-Cola’s management during several review sessions. The company chose to go with “an evolutionary design, not a revolutionary one, especially since [they] had made it clear they did not want to jeopardize the tremendous equity built up in the original design.”19

Landor's final designs allowed either the scripted “Coca-Cola” signature or the stylized “Coke” to be placed in a dominant position, with the dynamic curve flowing through the lettering. With “Coca-Cola” dominant, space was provided for the secondary “Coke” element, and vice versa. The combination’s power derived from the distinctiveness of the trademark Coca-Cola script and the impact of the name “Coke.”

With these elements united in a single design, the new graphic was introduced around the world on all Coca-Cola products, stationery, advertising, and delivery systems. This visual symbol consistently placed on all communications acts as a memory trigger for the customer. Printed on letterhead, product labels, packaging, and even delivery trucks that serve as mobile billboards, corporate signs and symbols such as Coca-Cola’s permeate the American consumer landscape.20

Landor’s trademark design set a visual standard for the entire existing Coca-Cola line as well as all future products.21 The corporate identity for Coca-Cola now consisted of four components: “Coca-Cola,” “Coke,” the dynamic curve, and the colors visually complementary in one companywide symbol.22

As with all Landor projects, it was the consumer who ultimately determined the success of the design. Feedback from consumer surveys was overwhelmingly positive, showing that customers "preferred the [new] packaging over the old by a ratio of 8:1.”23

Happy birthday, Coca-Cola!

Mass marketing, advertising, and distinctive graphics had long been mainstays in promoting Coca-Cola. In creating new global trademarks for the company and redesigning labels for its entire product line, the Landor team had both upheld “the 100-year heritage of the trademark and also carrie[d] the Coca-Cola line into the next century.”24

In May 1986, the Coca-Cola Company announced its first graphic design change in 17 years. The new designs were unveiled to 12,500 bottlers who had gathered in Atlanta to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Coca-Cola. Landor’s team of researchers, graphic artists, and market analysts had updated and solidified the visual identity for the entire family of Coca-Cola products worldwide. Working with key players from Coca-Cola, conducting extensive consumer and field surveys, and building on historic graphics, Walter Landor had successfully orchestrated the redesign of the world’s most recognized brand.


About the author

Bernie Gallagher is senior documentation specialist at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. His expertise lies in data mapping historical object information for museum publications and museum web projects.

Bernie has worked at the museum for over 20 years, overseeing the cataloging of objects by curators, specialists, volunteers, and interns and maintaining proper data standards in the database systems. His specialties include the collections of information technology and communications and work and industry.

Bernie earned an MA in history museum studies from the Cooperstown Graduate Program at the State University of New York, College at Oneonta, where he wrote his thesis on Walter Landor, "A Brand Is Built in the Mind: Walter Landor and the Transformation of Industrial Design in the Twentieth Century." His research and subsequent thesis form the basis of this article.


1. Mark Pendergrast, For God, Country and Coca-Cola: The Unauthorized History of the Great American Soft Drink and the Company that Makes It (Charles Scribner's Sons, 1993).
2. See note 1; and Edward C. Baig, “Name that Brand, Recognition Power of Various Brands,” Fortune (4 July 1988).
3. “Fashioning a Global Identity,” Step-by-Step Graphics (November/December 1986).
4. See note 3.
5. The Coca-Cola Company, news release, PR Newswire Association, Inc. (8 May 1986).
6. Ellen Paris, “Seeing Red, Coca-Cola Co.’s New Package Design,” Forbes (28 July 1986).
7. Lawrence Dietz, Soda Pop: The History, Advertising, Art and Memorabilia of Soft Drinks in America (Simon and Schuster, 1973).
8. See note 3.
9. See note 3.
10. See note 3.
11. See note 3.
12. See note 3.
13. Bernice Kanner, “Looking Good: Consumers Often Pick the Product By Its Package,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch (3 December 1995).
14. See note 3.
15. Thomas Hine, The Total Package: The Secret History and Hidden Meanings of Boxes, Bottles, Cans and Other Persuasive Containers (Little, Brown and Company, 1995).
16. See note 3.
17. See note 3.
18. David A. Aaker, Managing Brand Equity: Capitalizing on the Value of a Brand Name (Free Press, 1991).
19. See note 3.
20. John M. Murphy, Brand Strategy (Prentice Hall, 1990); and Veronica Napoles, Corporate Identity Design (John Wiley & Sons, 1988).21. See note 6.
22. See note 18.
23. Jon Berry, “Coca-Cola Repackages Its Look; Landor Assocs. Creates ‘Sea of Red’ on the Shelf,” Adweek (19 May 1986).
24. See note 5.

© 2009 Bernard Gallagher and Landor Associates. All rights reserved.

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