Coca-Cola historian Ted Ryan on the contour bottle, global strategy and health concerns
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the iconic Coca-Cola contour bottle. Michelle Herbison took the opportunity to go back in time through some of the brand’s history with Coca-Cola historian Ted Ryan.
Marketing: It is the 100 year anniversary of the coke contour bottle this year. What can you tell us about the history of the bottle?
Ted Ryan: Coke was invented in 1886 but it was in a fountain, and there would be dozens of flavours – sarsaparilla, root beer, cream soda, chocolate, lime, all these different flavours and Coke was just one more but it was a very popular one. By 1889 people wanted to make it affordable, they wanted to take it with them so it was put into bottles and it was sold in every state in the United States and a couple of international countries by 1900. The growth was so explosive that a lot of imitators jumped in to try to steal the word Coke. You would get companies like My Coke Cola, Koke spelled with a ‘K’ or with two Ks. Different people tried to imitate the strip logo and hone in on some of the Coca-Cola sales. So by 1912 the Coca-Cola bottlers and The Coca-Cola Company decided that they needed to begin the work towards a solution to protect their intellectual property.
For the next three years they got all of the US bottlers to agree that different proprietary packages could be found and everybody would agree to accept. By 1915 we had almost a thousand bottlers across the US – to get all of them to agree on something was like herding cats – but they knew as a business driver they had to do it.
In April 1915, The Coca-Cola Company authorised the expenditure of up to $500 and they agreed to send out a creative brief to design a distinctive package.
They didn’t go to designers like they would today; this was the actual people who were going to make it. They went to eight different glass companies across the United States.
The design brief was brilliantly simple: it called for a bottle you could recognise lying broken on the ground or might feel in the dark.
The Red Glass Company in Indiana in the middle of the United States sent a couple of their researchers to the local library for design inspiration. Not knowing what was in the secret formula for Coca-Cola, they thought that the cocoa pod which produces the cocoa beans might be one of the ingredients – the beans which you use to make chocolate. They traced it out of the encyclopaedia, they patented it in November of 1915 and then the bottle was accepted by the company and the bottlers and the rest is history.
We used it continuously from November 1915 all the way up until the patent expired in 1951 and it was unchanging. It was still the same bottle year after year after year, with the bulbous sides, the ribs, the coke bottle that you know and love.
Then finally when the patent expired we sought and received trademark registration in the US and subsequently in other countries. It is one of the few consumer packages in the world that actually is off a trademark protection over and above the patent protection which has already expired.
M: The bottle has obviously changed over the time as well. For one thing, most of them are plastic these days. How have the changes come about and to what extent has it actually changed over the years?
TR: I have a couple of things in my care: the story of the Coca-Cola red, the script logo, the secret formula. Those don’t change. But the contour changes and it changes by material and it changes by type but the essence of the contour doesn’t change. It was essentially the same until 1955, when we took it to the king and family size, for larger servings. We enlisted Raymond Lowe the famous industrial designer who did the airstream and Air Force One colors to help us to take it to king size. He is the one who recommended we do away with the embossed logo and do the white applied color labelling that we have today. Then as technology improved you don’t need the original bottles from 1915 until 1955 – each weighed 14-and-a-half ounces; that is almost a pound, then there was a pound of fluid in it. So when technology improved they lightened the bottle then the plastic was introduced in 1993 and the aluminum contra bottle in 2001. It’s a very sleek package; it’s totally different.
To me the contour shape is as much a feeling as anything else. When you see it you recognise it as the Coca-Cola bottle.
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M: Talk to me about Coke going global. How is the strategy taken to different markets and how has that changed over the years?
TR: I’m going to give you all the historical answers, all the way until the current day and then I’ll talk about what our current marketers are doing today. What Coke did, and it was innovative from the very beginning, from the 1920s when we first began the established foreign markets in earnest, the one thing that was never allowed to change, no market has ever been allowed to mess around with the trademark; the Coca-Cola logo always stays the same. And if there is an overarching tagline, that tagline is typically used, although the concept of a tagline didn’t exist until the 50s anyway.
If you look at the 30s and the 40s the concept for the ad comes out of the United States and then gets localised. We have examples in our archives that will show us calendars from 1932 and you will see a Turkish version of it, you will see an Irish version of it, you will see a US version of it, and it will be the same concept. Maybe our selling scene for December is going to be a Christmas scene in most countries but in others it won’t. Or our July scene in the Northern hemisphere where it is summer will have a scene on a diving board at a pool, while in the Southern hemisphere that will be the December scene. The same concept will be there and the same artwork will be there.
More recently, particularly after the 1960s, once we began to go to global agencies, we hired McCann Erickson in 1956 as a global agency. They were going to help make sure that the advertising was all one sight, one sound, one voice around the world. Which works to a certain extent but then local markets will get the information and customise.
I can guarantee you that a ad from 1965 in Mexico is not going to look anything like an ad from 1965 for Australia. I’ve done these comparisons from country to country and in Australia you are going to have surfboards, you are going to have beaches, you are going to have all the elements of what makes life pleasant in Australia whilst in Mexico you are going to have food, and you are going to have family, you are going to have infants – the scenes are just going to be totally different.
M: Interesting. I’m wondering whether that has changed in recent times with the internet making global communications more accessible? People in different countries are potentially more aligned in their values than they were years ago. Have you seen that the ads around the globe have started to become more similar?
TR: No, I still see tremendous differences. What I do see is more and more competition between countries. Australia is home to ‘Share a Coke’ and believe me, the country managers in Australia are very aware that they started the global trend to put the names on the side of the bottle. That’s a huge win for Australia.
Coca-Cola sets itself a concept and that’s an enjoyable moment of refreshment. What is an enjoyable moment of refreshment in Australia may not be same as Poland or Ecuador; you highlight what is important to you.
I was looking through a couple of videos today; I had never seen this particular one about cricket that was produced in Australia. I couldn’t date it but it is the late 50s, maybe 1958. I can guarantee you that ad would never have been produced anywhere in the Coke system except Australia and maybe India and Pakistan. It is things that resonate locally and matter locally are important because they matter to people.
One of our chairmen had a great line I love to say, “Advertising is the art of making people like you,” and that is a very careful distinction; it’s not the art of selling more, it’s the art of making people like you. If they like you, the brands happen and the sales happen and everything else happens. Coca-Cola is the easiest thing in the world to like; it’s this moment of refreshment, it’s families, it’s grandparents, it’s a first date… and they are all happy moments.
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M: What about the differences between the different Coke varieties? These days we’ve got Diet Coke, Coke Zero and Coca-Cola Life, as well as the traditional Coca-Cola. What is the history of how those have fitted in with each other?
TR: After 1955 Coke was a single product, a single size and a single package and essentially a single price all the way until 1955. And then all of a sudden in 1955 we introduced Fanta Orange. We come up with king size, family size a few years later. A few years later we add Sprite. We buy the Winnipeg company, and we become by 1965 a total beverage company with dozens and dozens of brands and dozens of flavours.
The company changed to meet the change in consumer desires. The consumers very clearly told us that they wanted diet drinks, so in 1963 we came up with Tab. Then in 1982 in a move that was groundbreaking at the time, mainly within the four walls of Coke, because our legal department had resisted it for so long, we extended the trademark of Coca-Cola to include Diet Coke and then Cherry Coke, and then caffeine-free and now we have Coke Zero and Coke Life and each one of those drinks has a perfect place within the portfolio to appeal to a different consumer want. We only produce drinks if consumers want them. And if they don’t want them they go away. Just like Coke Two, which in the United States was a mid-calorie drink, it had 355 calories and it was supposed to be one of the successful brands. But the consumers said that they didn’t want it and it went away.
Then Coke Zero came out a couple of years later to a huge worldwide success.
M: On this theme of all the different varieties, talk to me about the changes that have happened over the last couple of decades with issues of obesity, Coke being slammed for being full of sugar. Is it possible that in the future the Coca-Cola brand won’t be as huge and prevalent, or is it about diversifying and producing different products and providing different options?
TR: I 100% believe the brand will continue into the future; I believe consumers will tell us what they want. It is interesting, today I was working on another project and I pulled out a 1957 flyer that The Coca-Cola Company produced and distributed to all the bottlers, it was a very factual look at calories and the ways that Coca-Cola should be consumed. That if you are on a diet it is not a great idea to have lots of Coke. But I think that is the first document I have that had concerns about Coke losing appeal.
It has always been about choice. It has always been about acknowledgement that the drink has calories and it’s an active healthy lifestyle that can help make Coca-Cola viable.
I’m 51 and I can’t have five Cokes a day, but for my moment after lunch I will have my Coke and I will enjoy it. It’s just common sense.
I know we have had that outreach both within and outside the company for decades. That cricket film from the 1950s that I just described to you, that is a perfect example of always promoting healthy activities for kids. Or hitting a baseball in the United States, a forward pass in soccer-loving countries. It’s always been about activities and enjoying Coke when the moment arises.
M: It is interesting to hear that this has been a relevant point throughout Coke’s history because it’s become such an issue that people have become vocal about in the last couple of decades and Coke is labelled the bad guy a lot of the time.
TR: We developed our first diet drink in 1963 and the internal memos about developing Tab say there is an increasing portion of the consumer population that is concerned about wellbeing and we need to make sure that we have a drink that addresses those needs. So it’s certainly a concern of the company; you can’t live unless you provide your consumers with what they want.
M: Lastly, I wanted to hear a little bit of reflection on your role as director of heritage communications. It sounds like a pretty sweet job. What is so important about the history of Coke and why is it so important to preserve all of the history?
TR: Many companies treasure their heritage, and Coca-Cola is very important because it is sort of a pillar of the past. One the important things for Coca-Cola is to acknowledge the past – you don’t want to be described as living in the past, or reflecting back on better days gone by – we want to be relevant. We want to make the information ready for marketers to do research. We basically take the icons of Coca-Cola and keep them relevant to the day.
Andy Warhol took our Coke bottles and made them pop art because it was something that meant something to everyone.
Celebrating the contour
A free travelling art exhibition, ‘The Coca-Cola Bottle Art Tour: Inspiring Pop Culture for 100 Years’ will conclude in Sydney on 23 November 2015, after visiting 15 countries. The multi-sensory exhibition will feature the work of more than 20 artists including Andy Warhol, Norman Rockwell and Clive Barker, plus historic artefacts and interactive experiences.
The Coca-Cola contour bottle made fans out of celebrities including Elvis, Marilyn Monroe and Ray Charles, was the first commercial product on the cover of Time Magazine and even made it to the moon.
To celebrate the 100th anniversary of the bottle, Coca-Cola challenged contemporary artists and designers from around the world to reinterpret vintage imagery for a modern audience. These artworks will run across packaging, out of home, TV, cinema and digital advertising as well as featuring in the exhibition.
Coke in film
Just some of the films Coca-Cola has featured in over the years include:
- Dinner at Eight (1933) – in print ad,
- It’s A Wonderful Life (1946) – sign in background,
- Flaming Star (1960) – actress holding a Coke,
- Dr Strangelove (1964) – Coca-Cola vending machines,
- The Gods Must Be Crazy (1980) – bottle falling from sky,
- E.T. (1982) – bottle,
- The Coca-Cola Kid (1985) – film based on American Coca-Cola marketing representative,
- Strictly Ballroom (1992) – Coca-Cola sign framed by Hills Hoist,
- Independence Day (1996) – placed on aircraft wing,
- Dreamgirls (2006) – visible in car dealership,
- Little Miss Sunshine (2006) – sign and bottle at mini-mart,
- The Kite Runner (2007) – verbal reference to Coke,
- Tropic Thunder (2008) – verbal reference to Diet Coke, and
- Changeling (2008) – contour bottle.