Preserving the future of a packaging icon

14 September 2003 (Last Updated September 14th, 2003 18:30)

Its bottle and logo helped it to become one of the world's most recognisable brands, but Coca-Cola has had to keep the packaging of its product up to date. New materials, growing environmental and recycling concerns and increased competition in the soft drinks market have meant the brand cannot rest on its laurels.

Preserving the future of a packaging icon

Since it was born in Atlanta, Georgia in 1866, Coca-Cola has come a long way. Back then Dr John S Pemberton, the creator of the formula that remains one of the world's most closely guarded secrets, sold around nine drinks a day and grossed around $50 a year from his invention.

Now it is estimated that in around 200 countries consumers drink somewhere in the region of a billion Cokes each day. Though the business has grown beyond belief, certain elements remain the same — the formula, the flowing script of the logo penned by Pemberton and the ribbed surface of the drink's Contour glass bottles.

In marketing terms, the Contour bottle may be just as important as the formula, which is apparently only known by four people and one computer system. In fact, the bottle's design, which was given a patent in 1915, became the first product to be registered as a 3D trademark in 1977, and only a small handful of consumer packages have ever received such a registration.

From the start, the concept of the bottle sprang from the recognition that a completely unique and instantly recognisable bottle would be a major marketing tool. The design brief suggested that the goal should be ‘a Coca-Cola bottle which a person will recognise as a Coca-Cola bottle even if he feels it in the dark' and that ‘the Coca-Cola bottle should be shaped so that, even if broken, one could tell at a glance what it was.'

The success the original designers achieved in attempting to fulfil this brief is still evident today, as the bottle remains one of the most readily identifiable industrial objects on the planet. The organic design of the bottle was a response to the many imitations of Coca-Cola's packaging and formula that were appearing in the early 1900s.

Responding to competition

But that is the past, and the present is a time of great and rapid change in the soft drinks market. Competition, such as that from manufacturers of energy drinks, is growing like never before, and even a brand with a history as well established as Coca-Cola has to stay responsive in terms of branding, marketing and packaging.

Since Coca-Cola first hit the shelves, the company that makes it has also significantly increased the number of drinks it markets — not only by creating new varieties of Coke, but also by launching and acquiring numerous other brands. In its stable of over 230 brands, the company now includes such well-known drinks as Sprite, Fanta, Frutopia, Oasis, Dr Pepper and many, many more.

In addition, several new varieties of Coke itself have been introduced over time, from Cherry Coke to the more recent varieties Vanilla Coke and Coke with Lemon. With the new varieties of Coke, the packaging challenge is to maintain the core elements of an iconic design, while giving each drink its own distinctive appearance.

In order to achieve this, the company has recently looked to new design systems to help it handle multiple, complex designs more efficiently. Guided by IBM, Coca-Cola recently chose to deploy the CATIA V5 computer aided design (CAD) system to help it meet the new challenges of bottle design.

Responsibility for designing bottles and cans for Coca-Cola rests with the company's Package Development and Design Group at company headquarters, which is still in the drink's native town of Atlanta. There, the decision was taken to deploy a CAD package that had the capacity to handle high-end surfacing capabilities and give its users the ability to design complex bottle surfaces and quickly deal with a large number of variations in design.

The CATIA system, which incorporates the functions that enable complex designs to be varied quickly and easily, also provides an open architecture and web-enablement. Its deployment allowed Coca-Cola to make cuts in its design time and bring a large number of alternative designs to the testing phase more rapidly. This system has also been specifically adopted for use on the design of bottles containing Coke itself, rather than the many other drinks in Coca-Cola's stable.

The reason that there is a need for this process to be streamlined and become more sophisticated becomes clear when one looks at the international markets in which Coke is sold. Though the shape of the bottle is familiar and seems to be constant, there are in fact a number of different versions that exist around the world. A typical 500ml bottle, for instance, can have as many as 50 variations in different parts of the world.

This is partly due to the fact that in each location different manufacturing facilities exist, all of which have individual requirements. Furthermore, some consideration has to be given to the fact that cultural differences, and their impact on overall marketing strategies, may come to bear on the final design of the familiar bottle in each marketplace.

The capacity to come up with a number of different designs based on the same core concepts is therefore crucial. Another key element of the system is the fact that it facilitates collaborative design processes, linking design teams and their members via the Internet.

Sharing information both internally and externally is critical when a large number of potential designs are produced. Designers need to know that they are working from the latest version, and when a design is complete, it must be able to go into the production phase quickly. For such a system, compatibility with systems along the supply chain — including suppliers and manufacturers — is also of great importance.

The CATIA V5 system from IBM, running on Windows NT, met all of these criteria. Having managed to triple its design capabilities over the last decade — while using around a third as many people in the process — Coca-Cola was keen to continue this trend.

Elsewhere, the company has also had to turn its attention away from bottle designs and look at innovative ways to package its products for different kinds of usage. One example is the recent release of a new storage system for Coke in cans for the domestic market.

Just this year, a new storage system was developed for cans to help Coke maintain its position in a market where water, health, juice and energy drinks have been making significant inroads. A new box that fits into refrigerators has been designed to allow consumers to place a pack of twelve or eight Coke cans inside and help themselves as they would from a vending machine. As one can is removed from the front of the box, the next slides into place behind it.

On their toes

All of this innovation in systems and new designs shows that even the most durable and established brands need to keep on their toes when it comes to keeping consumers happy. Packaging is a key area in which innovation and responsiveness to customer needs can deliver real benefits in the marketplace.