Holistic design is making its mark on Coca-Cola’s billion-dollar brands.

David Butler
Vice President Global Design,
The Coca-Cola Co.

Coca-Cola’s contour bottle, designed in 1916, is one of the most recognizable and beloved packages ever created-an icon’s icon. But a lot can happen in nine decades, and by the beginning of the 21st century, the company needed a design shake-up. Enter David Butler.

Butler, who is Coca-Cola’s vice president, global design, joined the company in 2004 with the mission of sharpening the company’s focus on design as a competitive advantage. He is responsible for how the company thinks about design and what it does with design, in every aspect and within the context of a global design strategy.

With experience in brand design for a diverse assortment of organizations, including The International Olympic Committee, Delta Airlines, Cartoon Network, UPS, Gucci, Bank of America and United Airlines, and having built and led a global strategic planning function at Sapient, Butler was uniquely qualified for the substantial task that awaited him at Coca-Cola.

Thanks to his visionary approach, the company’s entire approach to design has changed in the past five years. “My focus is connecting the value of design with the value of our business, using a holistic approach,” he explains.

Rather than making design the last step in package development or any business process, “You need to start at the front end and work your way to the back,” Butler says. “Issues around the supply chain and customer-relationship management-basically helping to drive the business forward for the future in a sustainable way-this is all part of the design process now. In this industry, it’s a new way to think about design.”

Coca-Cola’s scale, which Butler characterizes as his biggest challenge and greatest opportunity, drove the holistic design approach. With more than 450 brands (including its billion-dollar brands), the world’s largest beverage distribution system, consumers in more than 200 countries and consumption of nearly 1.6 billion servings of its brands daily, Coca-Cola lives large.

“Thinking big and applying scale is where we focus,” he says. “We can’t think about just one package or one brand, we have to think about this large portfolio and this large system that we work with.”

But within that macro view, his team needed to start somewhere with updating designs for packaging and other brand representations. Brand Coke was the obvious choice.

Last year Coca-Cola rolled out a newly designed visual identity system for its flagship brand, dramatically simplifying the brand identity across all consumer touch points, including packaging. The advertising industry honored the design with the inaugural Design Grand Prix award at the 2008 Cannes Lions International Advertising Festival.

In recent years, Coca-Cola’s visual identity had become cluttered, diluting the brand’s iconic status and complicating its ability to extend into a brand like Coca-Cola Zero. The fresh new visual identity system is streamlined, with all visual noise eliminated. “We’re quite proud that we won the Design Grand Prix for the work we’ve done on Coke. To be honest, that took us by surprise, but it’s a great thing. It was definitely a team effort,” Butler says.

Also at the Cannes advertising festival last year, Coca-Cola’s aluminum contour bottle won a Gold Lion award. The aluminum bottle, which features the iconic curves of the glass contour bottle, was one of the first packaging projects Butler’s team tackled after he joined the company.

The contour aluminum bottle was initially commercialized as the limited-edition M5 collection in 2005, but the aluminum bottle that won at Cannes features the pared-down graphic sensibility of Coca-Cola’s new visual identity. The prize-winning bottle combines the contour shape with striking minimalist graphics rendered in a simplified red, black and silver palette.

In a special project developed to tie in the Coca-Cola brand with the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, the company last year worked with eight young Chinese designers and artists to develop graphics for the aluminum contour bottle. The resulting limited-edition collection, called WE8, represents an artistic bridging of cultures.

Butler takes pride in Coca-Cola’s innovations with the aluminum contour bottle and says WE8 “is the application of that package that I personally am most excited about. Thanks to Coke’s scale, we were able to share our support of design in China but also build tremendous equity for the brand. That’s just one example of using packaging to drive innovation for the Coke brand around the world.”

Now, with the Coca-Cola brand design work well in hand, Butler’s team is focusing on some of the company’s other global brands. Projects include global redesigns of the package graphics for Fanta and Sprite.

“The approach is the same one we used with Coke-really simplifying down to the core essence of the brands but then building scale to accommodate the various brand strategies that are in play for those two brands,” Butler says. The new Fanta packaging started appearing on store shelves in North America this spring, and the Sprite redesign is poised to follow.

In the realm of structural package design, he points to one example, the 2L PET contour bottle for Coca-Cola, which will soon launch in the United States. The company also is looking at its other global brands to do the same thing, leverage design to create as much differentiation as possible.

Within each of these projects, Butler has remained true to his vision of using design to drive Coca-Cola’s commercial success. “What I’ve found to be most rewarding is the connection that we’ve made between the value of design and the value of the business. The award at Cannes was great, but growing the business has been much more of a win.” BP

NAME: David Butler
AGE: 42
TITLE: Vice president, global design, at The Coca-Cola Company
WHERE OR WHEN DO YOUR BEST IDEAS COME TO YOU?In the most unexpected places…
WHAT’S ON YOUR NIGHTSTAND?“I like to read several books at a time-currently I’m working my way throughThinking in Systemsby Donella Meadows;Less: Accomplishing More by Doing Less, by Marc Lesser; andDiscovering Design, by Richard Buchanan and Victor Margolin.”