Has Coke bottled it? A bigger opportunity has been missed with brand redesign

Jim Prior, CEO of brand consultancy The Partners and Lambie-Nairn, on Coke's redesign and why the "exemplary" brand could have been bolder.

Coca-Cola: could redesign have been bolder?
Coca-Cola: could redesign have been bolder?

I’ve been a big fan of how Coca-Cola has managed branding in recent years.

Through adherence to a single-minded brand idea, simple, yet superbly crafted design, and an exemplary understanding of how to balance consistency with flexibility in execution, the brand stands out as one of the finest examples of contemporary global branding.

Of course, branding is only one small part of all that constitutes a brand, but in Coca-Cola’s case, it remains a hugely valuable asset and it pleases me to see that the organisation understands that and has treated it with all due respect. I wish more organisations had the sense to follow suit.

I’m left thinking that a bigger opportunity has been missed

So when I look at these relaunched designs, I do so through a rose-red-tinted lens. And first impressions are OK. It makes sense to harmonise across the portfolio – none of us really needs an explanation as to why that’s a sensible idea – and the superficial impression is that the simplicity and craft values of the main-brand design have been extended well across all the brands.

In fact, whilst this change may be a major undertaking from an internal and operational perspective, it feels so much like common sense that I doubt the external world will pay too much attention to it all. People will understand it, like it and accept it without fuss.

From the minute it hits the shelves they will forget almost everything that came before.

Now for the niggles

But as I look a little longer, a few niggles start to appear. The first is a technical one. In moving to a cleaner, harmonised design system, why didn’t it go the whole way and clean up and harmonise the sub-branding too? The 'Life' and 'Zero' identities now look like random typeface choices – they have no relationship to any other element in the design system and are not presented with any confidence or authority. "Zero" flows into "calories", so is it a name or a descriptor?

Why is "natural sources" in bold, and why is the point size larger on Diet Coke’s "no calories, no sugar" line and Coca-Cola’s "since 1886"?

In fact, why does Coca-Cola need to state its foundation date at all, and is there anyone left in the UK who doesn’t already know what Diet Coke is – so why is that type there at all?

Coca-Cola is a great brand and the changes make sense

I feel that the craft values and confidence of the brand have got lost in this detail, and that’s a shame, because when an organisation makes a change of this operational magnitude, it’s a rare opportunity to ask and address these kind of pedantic questions and to design an even more confident and well-crafted result.

My second concern is at a more emotional level. So, yes, in rational terms it makes sense for the portfolio to be consistent in how it presents itself, but Coca-Cola is famously anything but a rational brand.

When I wrote in my opening paragraph about its exemplary balance of consistency and flexibility, the image in my mind is of a red world with flowing white lines, rich in illustration and interpretation of style and form, with splashes of wit, colour and human touches; I don’t think of a gridded design system with strict, inflexible rules.

Consistency is key

Now maybe I’m overreacting here – I’m looking at four cans, not an entire brand landscape – but there is perhaps a concern with this new system that it is just a tad too structured for such a brand.

I go back to my point about confidence: I’d have preferred to see a common design language more in terms of principles than precise structure, linked to a brave freedom of expression in how they are applied.

So, the more I look, the more I find it hard to judge. I stand by my opening assertion that Coca-Cola is a truly great brand and the changes made here do make sense.

The consumer will be happy, and I expect the consistency that this system provides will drive a benefit to the business in many ways.

But it’s my opinion that the same strategic outcome could have been executed in different ways, with more confidence and craft than is demonstrated here. I’m left thinking that a bigger opportunity has been missed. 


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