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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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,
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
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
22. See note 18.
23. Jon Berry, “Coca-Cola Repackages Its Look; Landor Assocs.
Creates ‘Sea of Red’ on the Shelf,” Adweek (19 May
24. See note 5.
© 2009 Bernard Gallagher and Landor Associates. All rights