Coca-Cola: Journey to the Roots of Brand Identity

While one of the biggest brands of the world is celebrating its 125th anniversary, we’ll let ourselves sneak into the past and observe how it has evolved throughout its history spanning for more than a century and how through visual communication with all kinds of consumers around the globe it has created its face to become what it is now. The second most widely understood term in the world, after “okay”, a bottle whose shape can be unmistakably recognized in the darkness or even if broken, and ultimate sponsor of Olympic games since 1896, not to mention, a symbol of the USA and undeniable ingredient in McDonald’s menu…

The history of Coca-Cola or simply Coke dates back to 1886. The recipe of this beverage was developed by the pharmacist John S. Pemberton; and the drink was first served at Jacobs’ Pharmacy. The brand name, ‘Coca Cola’ was founded by an accountant of the Jacob’s Pharmacy who believed two C’s would look attractive in the ads (and who will dare to say he was wrong?). He also created the distinctive logo script, using the typeface known as Spencerian script, which was invented in the middle of the 19th century and had been highly popular until the beginning of the 20th. The logo has preserved its look for 125 years and has proven to be one of the most recognized in the world.

Red and white colors were used in Coca-Cola logo as together they make up a simple and bold contrast, which was supposed to attract young audience.

1886-1940 – Vintage Coke

First of all, that is to mention, Coca-Cola was created as a ‘patent medicine’, a syrup to increase stamina, a refreshing energetic beverage—as we put it nowadays. Everything about the drink—from its taste and effect and to its packaging and logo—had to radiate freshness and youth. Another important detail: by putting a stress on Coke’s refreshing effect, the manufacturer created the image of Coke as a beverage to be enjoyed in the hot time of the year.

That’s the reason why in the early ‘vintage’ print ads and advert calendars of Coca-Cola we can see young red-cheeked ladies dressed in light summer dresses of bright colors. Another essential element of almost every print was fresh roses or other flowers. Green leaves and rosy buds were depicted to emphasize the youth and accentuated on the ruby cheeks of the models that were usually portrayed enjoying Coca-Cola in the summer shade.

1900 marked the first creative collaboration for the brand as it partnered with musical performer Hilda Clark. Her portraits along with the brand’s logo appeared on numerous posters, trays and bookmarks. See? This branded contrast between red and white, and extravagant lady posing near the posh vase with roses.

Another important ingredient of Coke’s distinctive visual identity is Coca Cola bottle. In 1899, the beverage that was previously served at the pharmacy and soda fountains in glasses, has rolled out its first glass bottle, The Hutchinson. From the beginning of the 20th Century, the bottle was launched with the Coca-Cola trademark embossed in the glass. The new bottles were typically clear or brown glass until a diamond shaped label was introduced in 1907 with the aim to better identify the product.

In 1915 Coca Cola rolled out its iconic classic contour bottle designed by Alexander Samuelson and patented by the Root Glass Company also known as the “hobble skirt” bottle. The task was to create a signature bottle shape for the drink, that would allow anybody to recognize a bottle of Coca-Cola even in the darkness and when it’s broken. The classic ‘contour’ shape is used until nowadays both for glass and plastic bottles. These bold lively curves surely symbolize ‘youthful exuberance of America’ which is at the core of the brand.

1921-nowadays – Coke Capitalizing on Christmas

1921 was the first time when, in an effort to boost sales of the drink throughout a year, the Coca-Cola Company came up with the tagline ‘Thirst Knows No Time Nor Season». The move was aimed at re-positioning Coke as a universal means of satisfying thirst, no matter when it comes, which would allow for the company to keep the sales going all the year round, not just in summer. The tagline soon appears in the print ads featuring the same ruby-cheeked red-blooded girls with flowers… but dressed winter style this time.

However, changing the dress was not enough. In order to boost sales in the wintertime, the brand had to better appeal to the younger consumer. In 1931, Coke set off to create a campaign that would link the brand with Christmas and its main character, Santa Claus (whose red outfit and white beard perfectly matches the Coca-Cola color scheme!).

Coke and Christmas — they were meant to be together! So, in 1931 artist Haddon Sundblom created his first illustration of Santa Claus pausing for a Coke. He appealed to Scandinavian cultural heritage and portrayed Santa as a plump jolly man in red costume with glasses and a white beard.



That was the moment Coke signed on Santa as a brand ambassador for its Christmas campaigns. From 1931 to 1964, the same artist painted images of Santa, which helped to establish the modern image of this seasonal brand ambassador who is featured annually in TV spots for Coke.

40-50 – Marching Apace with American History

It’s hard to characterize the WW-II and post-war period in the life of the brand with a single trend. Over these 20 years, Coke tried all possible tools, tactics, and means available at that time to reach the consumer. That was a time when Coke pursued global expansion, yet showed that it was a truly American brand, joining America in the most challenging moments of its history.

Probably, in an effort to establish itself as a drink of blossoming beauty, in 1940 the brand distributes brochures on flower arranging to the Coca-Cola fans. More than 5 million booklets reached American homes. What a clever way of luring in the female audience!

In 1942 the brand joins the whole world in fighting fascism. Starting from 1942 and through 45, the series of posters depicting American fighter planes and soldiers were issued for use in schools, restaurants and retail stores. Now Coca-Cola becomes a source of energy, heroism and courage for American soldiers. During WW-II the drink was available to the US troops in the world for a nickel. During the war, the brand has commissioned 64 portable bottling plants in Asia, Europe and North Africa. This is how it has turned the appalling situation in the world into success as more than 5 billion bottles of Coca-Cola were distributed during WW-II.

Coca-Cola Poster

In the post-war period Coke follows the global trend of art and culture: simplification. The visual images as well as verbal elements of its posters become very simple, accessible and understanable to anyone, but very bright and appealing.

So is the poster entitled “YES!» that was created in 1946 by Haddon Sundblom that won multiple awards. A smiling girl (summer style), sitting barefooted (on a white background) and giving a coquet look to a stranger offering her a bottle of Coke. The verbal element of the poster only contains a Coca-Cola logo with brand name on it, and a single word — «Yes». For the post-war America, the future looked light and promising, while Coca-Cola managed to capture this promise in a single word and connect it with the product. Yes, Coke is a key to good mood, enjoyable time, a way to find good company, which is simple and accessible.

Coca-Cola ‘Yes’ girl by Haddon Sundblom

In 1950 Coke became the first product to be featured on the cover of the Time magazine. Actually, the editor wanted to have Robert Woodruff, the current CEO of the Coca-Cola Company on the cover, however the latter stated that the products was the only important element of the company.

1950 marked Coca-Cola’s debut on television. The first TV commercial was broadcast on Thanksgiving Day on a CBS half-hour special featuring Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy. That was the beginning of continued media expansion for Coke, since in 1951 the brand started sponsoring a weekly radio program featuring the opera tenor Mario Lanza, and in 1953 produced ‘Coke Time’, a radio and TV program featuring popular singer Eddie Fisher.

In 1950s, Coke joined the movement for the rights of African Americans by featuring them in its ads, such as Harlem Globetrotters and Olympic champions. In 1955, Clark University student Mary Alexander became one of the first African-American women to appear in print adverts. By daring to take this step against social standards of that time, Coke has communicated a very clear message to the society: its product is accessible to anybody, despite of their skin color and social status. Coke is eager to reach and connect with anyone in America, so maybe it’s time for America to say good-bye to its outdated humiliating prejudices?

The post-war era was marked by a tremendous success for the brand. In 1958 Coke sponsored pavilion at the Brussels World’s Fair where it unveiled its operating bottling plant and presented the exhibition documenting Coca-Cola business around the world. And there was a lot to see, since by that time, Coca-Cola had 1700 bottling plants around the world and was available in more than 100 countries.

1960-ties: “Things Go Better with Coke”

In 1963, Coca-Cola kicks off a new multifaceted campaign encompassing TV, radio and print media and taglined “Things Go Better With Coke”. The campaign was a creative collaboration of the brand and a number of American singers and sport celebrities. At that time, The Supremes,
Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Jan and Dean, Roy Orbison and The Coasters performed Coke jingles using their own style on the radio.

1970-s: It’s the Real Thing

In 1969, Coke introduces a new red-and-white logo and launches a new campaign featuring a new tagline “It’s the real thing”. It appears in a TV spot, ‘I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke’, or ‘Hilltop’, that was produced in 1971, which becomes one of the top 3 TV ads for Coke ever produced.

The video sees dozens of young people of different national backgrounds singing on the hilltop on a sunny day. With this spot, Coca-Cola sent a new message to the world: it has grown into international company, encompassing many countries, but nonetheless has preserved its youthful spirit. According to Coke, the ad became an instant classic with lots of people writing to Coke and requesting the music of the video soon after its debut on TV.

Another hit TV commercial, ‘”Mean” Joe Greene’ saw the world in 1979 and marked the special relationship between Coke and sports. When it was broadcast in 1980 during Super Bowl (when the featured sportsman and his team won the game), the ad became another all-time hit.

In 1982, Coca-Cola rolled out Diet Coke, which marked the long time period of collaboration with celebrities, including Karl Lagerfeld, who managed to lose a lot of weight due to special diet which included lots of low-calorie Coke.

In 1985, for the first time in its almost centennial history, Coke tried to change the recipe of the product assuring the customers that «The Best Just Got Better», which caused consumer protest nationwide and compelled the brand to return to its classic recipe.

90-ties: New Blood Arrives just in time for Xmas

In 1993, Coke hires a new character for Xmas campaign: a polar bear. The first TV spot entitled ‘Northern Lights’ is broadcast featuring these animals and makes it to top 3 TV commercial spots for Coke of all time.

In 90-ties, the brand employs another new Christmas symbol, which links Coke and Christmas — Christmas trucks. Since that time, they have become an undeniable symbol of Xmas in further Coke seasonal commercials.

The Zero Years — ‘Open Happiness’

In the 21st century Coke launched a new campaign dubbed ‘Open Happiness’ characterized by a plethora of new visual images revolving around the theme of happiness. In a TV commercial that debuted in 2009, Coke vending machine on the street turns out to hide a «Magic factory» inside, which produces happiness along with Coca-Cola. The tagline of the video calls viewers to concentrate on “the Coke Side of Life”.

Building up on the same topic of Christmas, Coke entered winter 2010 encouraging consumers to ‘Shake up Christmas’. This season was marked by collaboration with ‘Train’ band, who performed ‘Shake up Happiness’ song. The music of it was featured in a new ‘Snow Globe’ video. Which means, last Christmas the image gallery of Christmas was enriched with a new symbol – a snow globe.

On May 8, 2011, Coca-Cola celebrated its 125th anniversary of «sharing happiness» with the world by paying homage to the symbols of its past. The Coke introduces the limited edition of its first Hutchinson bottle as well as straight-sided, The Prototype and the Contour bottles, which will be available across the U.K. for a limited time.

Popsop team congratulates Coke on this great date and offers a deeper insight into Coke’s history and reality. Throughout the week to come we will be showcasing the most notable campaigns, strategies, ups and downs the Company has faced in the last 125 years.