The 3 design principles that informed Coca-Cola’s latest rebrand

October 19, 2021, 12:00 PM UTC

When the design and marketing teams at Coca-Cola began to think about the brand’s global redesign early this year, they went down the same road they always had with a traditional agency pitch. “While we had some interesting ideas in that first phase, we unanimously said, ‘Nope we have to start from scratch,’” recalls Manolo Arroyo, Coke’s global CMO. “Then, we got nervous. What do we do?”

What came next was an internally-crafted, globally sourced brand strategy coupled with an invitation to a wide spectrum of creators, artists, agencies, and designers spanning verticals such as gaming, music, and entertainment to contribute to the campaign. The design and marketing teams and the mashup of creative partners spent the following nine months working on the launch of what would become the Real Magic campaign, which dropped worldwide September 29.

The company’s last brand revision came in 2016. This new effort, says Arroyo, was focused entirely on connecting with youth, creating a bigger community of Coke drinkers, and is unlike any Coke has put forth before. “We are going through a great transformation,” he says. “We are hyper-connected 24/7, but there is more isolation and loneliness on the rise. We all wish for harmony, but our actions are too often causing division by multiple shareholders.” Arroyo says the new campaign is an effort to reach more potential Coke drinkers and address these polarized realities: together and isolated, harmony and discord, real and virtual. The brand’s history and long-established identity is rooted in dichotomy: the soft drink, whose formula dates back to 1886, is known by just two people, yet can be bought and enjoyed by people in 217 countries across the globe, no matter the culture, ethnicity or class. “Our brand has two sides, it is secret and authentic, but it is also for everyone. No one can get a better Coke than anyone else. It is humble and iconic, real and magical.”

Manolo and his counterpart Rapha Abreu, Coca-Cola’s Global VP of Design, worked in lockstep to create a new logo (“the hug”) and build out a design strategy focused on experiences. The campaign includes images, artwork, and photography created by a wide array of talent across the globe, as well as a tie into the world of gaming which, in part, invites participation from Coke drinkers everywhere. I sat down with Arroyo and Abreu to comb through the Real Magic ecosystem and Coca-Cola’s three core tenets that speak to the brand’s strategy for inclusion, collective design vocabulary, and focus on creating experiences.

Be inclusive and get uncomfortable.

“The company has done a phenomenal job in marketing to our consumers to make them loyal,” says Arroyo. “What we haven’t done that well is increase our consumer base. We are going into a more culturally driven approach.” This was a new challenge for the team and one that seemed to require a totally fresh approach, sourcing new perspectives and voices. That’s a big reason why Abreu felt the design for Real Magic needed to be sourced globally and across disciplines: “Previously the design was more didactic. We are in a more mature state and can evolve the design…Inclusivity is a founding principle of our marketing, this idea that Real Magic happens to every one of us. It is not simply showing off different cultures or ethnicities, but the breadth of a design community.” In order to do that, Abreu says, his team leveraged freelancers, agencies, and design firms from all over the world to create imagery that reflects what he says “brings the experience more to a street level.” “We are bringing this to all of the touch points throughout the journey, on a screen, on social media. Brands are not static; you have motion and screens in everyone’s hands. Each one was made by individuals from around the world.”

In addition, the two agree, the creative reach of this project pushed boundaries on what it means for a brand to be global versus local. Arroyo contends that having more voices around the table from the beginning made the campaign feel far more intimate. “All are invited from moment zero,” he says. “Not just China, or the U.S., or Africa. We have to make an exercise of thinking about local needs, but also have the touch and feel and consistency around the world. It’s both. When you manage to include people and give them a voice, you get a much better result.”

Find your through-line and let it guide you.

Despite this new approach, Coke’s design philosophy is long established, says Abreu: “Be obsessively empathetic. Deliver inquisitive creativity. Be relentlessly bold. Have uncompromising craft.” The company’s design team implements an empathetic design process to solve problems and connect with the human experience, and the notion of the other. The language in and around that process as well as the visual identity, says Abreu, has been somewhat further cemented over the last nine months of work on Real Magic. Every illustration, digital work or photograph in the Real Magic campaign can stand alone or collectively through a shared design vocabulary.

Coca-Cola from day one was a design-led company” he says. “Back to 1886 and that pharmacy, everything that surrounded the product, the vessel we pour it into, the syrup dispenser, the siphon, the contour bottle; It’s a great example of design thinking. But the world has now changed and so has the way people interact with brands. Jacob’s pharmacy had just one door. Today, there are many doors and windows we use as starting points. This is about making sure every touch point is consistent and unified.” The key, says Arroyo, has been to apply those principles without exception. “You need to have something very clear,” he says. “If you apply it religiously, you’ll get a good result. Make sure you truly diverge creatively, and get out of your comfort zone.”

Design experiences that can be re-designed and multiplied.

The company’s decision to include the gaming community was in part about designing experiences. The goal, says Arroyo, is to create occasions for Coke drinkers. “Youth is passionate about music and gaming,” he says. “They are big drivers. We were trying to give people the occasion of how and why to enjoy a Coke. Leveraging all of that at scale requires a different muscle.” One striking way the team did this was through storyline: a gamer reaching for a Coke and upon opening it, connecting with the avatars in the game on the shared experience of drinking it. The game itself is interactive and can be played in 30 markets. This leaves the opportunity for the Coke community to finish the story, or design their own moments in and around the brand. It’s open-ended and up for interpretation, or further execution. “We see youth as content creators now, themselves,” says Abreu. “We are giving them the stage to be a part of our brand.” For Arroyo, the sentiment marks an overarching shift in Coca-Cola’s growth as a company. “We are at the beginning of a new journey,” says Arroyo. “We are learning, experimenting. We’ll make mistakes. That’s fine. You generate a culture of psychological safety so people can say what they think. It’s a new way for us to leverage co-creation.”

Nicole Gull McElroy


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Courtesy of Coca-Cola

“Inclusivity is one of the founding principles of our brand. With Real Magic, you will see the most diverse visual representation of the brand that we have ever had. The result is fresh, warm and approachable, anchored by our iconic Coca-Cola logo, embracing everyday moments of magic.” - Manolo Arroyo, Global Chief Marketing Officer, The Coca-Cola Company

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