Guest reviewer Fred Hart is a graphic designer and strategist in the consumer package goods industry. Explore his design review of new Caffeine Free Coke Zero within the context of the Coca-Cola branding system
The visual evolution of the Coca-Cola family of brands — Coke, Diet Coke, & Coke Zero — paints a fascinating aesthetic landscape sculpted by years of compounding design decisions. The recent introduction of Coke Zero Caffeine Free, the newest member to the Coke Zero family, has reignited our interest in the rules at play in the Coke segmentations and beverage category.
Not much has changed for the original and iconic Coca-Cola, its famed red can with nostalgic script and swoosh is recognized by millions all across the world. Yet when Diet Coke was introduced in 1981 it was markedly different from both a flavor profile and visual perspective. It originally launched in white can with silver striping, but soon made the transition to the more stylish silver background and serifed typeface, using the Coca-Cola nickname "Coke" in the name. This elevated Diet Coke from a mere sub-brand to competing sibling brand. Silver soon became the category norm for diet drinks, thus making Coke's red colored can and script synonymous with full flavor, sugar, and calories.
Several years later the Caffeine Free versions of both brands would brandish gold accents atop their appropriate colored backgrounds. Gold, in the Coke family system and later the beverage category at large, suddenly equated to Caffeine Free, and was effectively mixed with Silver (Diet) and Red (Classic).
Fast forward to 2005 when Coke Zero was introduced to the market and attempted to capture the fast-growing, health minded, "diet"-adverse demographic filled with young men. Coke Zero decided to launch in a white can, with black swoosh and a modern, san-serif treatment of Zero… and it performed poorly. Yet several years later, after a package redesign, Coke Zero took off and experienced wild success. Why is that?
If we look back at the trends and established consumers expectations built by Coke — relating to color — it's easy to understand why Coke Zero failed the first time. Silver, lacking color as we traditionally understand it, stands for Diet. White, the absence of color, and used in the original Diet Coke, invariably stood for the same thing. To support this argument, you need only see Coke's recent blunder of creating a polar bear/holiday version of its Coca-Cola Classic product, in a white can. Consumers immediately became confused, believing it to be Diet Coke. The problem was so rampant that eventually the design and product was recalled and replaced with a red version.
So what did Coke Zero do to reshape its image? Well if white and silver stood for diet and less real cola taste, then black, the presence of every color, signified a rich, flavorful experience and "Real Coca-Cola Taste." The new can was dark, bold, and featured the Coca-Cola script in red, but did not use the shorter "Coke" wordmark. It wore the Coca-Cola trade dress, but borrowed small elements from its diet counterpart (a silver swoosh, a subtle reminder that at its core, it is a diet drink). And with these changes, Coke Zero properly communicated with, and captured, its target audience, leading to its eventual success.
As we conclude this analysis of Coke, it's interesting to note an anomaly that was recently introduced into the family system. Circle back to the introduction of Caffeine Free Coke Zero. While it follows all of the established rules (Coke Zero trade dress + Gold for Caffeine Free), you may notice an element missing here that is found in all of the other family members…
What's most fascinating about this is that when we turn the script red in the Caffeine Free version, it feels less sophisticated and doesn't necessarily bring anything to the table.
Coke's arsenal of brand equities — the script, the swoosh, the composition, and the "Zero" wordmark — allows for the absence of red, which is a huge accomplishment for Coke and branding in general. To be able to transcend a specific brand color, albeit through established secondary colors of black and gold, rather than purple or something much more outrageous, is impressive. Can you imagine Tiffany not using its signature teal, Caterpillar abandoning yellow, or Barbie ditching pink?
It goes to show you that some rules are meant to be broken, within reasoning, and that everybody — even Coke — can fall or rise, based on its ability to interpret these rules of branding and design.