Coca-Cola Contour Bottle. USA, 1915
“We need a new bottle design which a person will recognise as a Coca-Cola bottle even if he feels it in the dark. The bottle should be shaped that, even if broken, a person could tell at a glance what it was.”
It’s the most persuasive product of them all. And it came into being thanks to a beautifully simple design brief…and a small case of mistaken identity.
The Contour bottle is occupying plenty of bandwidth right now. Throughout 2015, the world’s most profitable brand is celebrating a century of triumph for the world’s most recognised packaging design. An exhibition in Atlanta’s High Museum of Art and a retrospective book are two of the more eminent activities taking place in the shadow of Coca-Cola’s multi-billion dollar marketing push.
Turning Defence into Attack
By 1915 Coca-Cola was already a name known in households throughout the US. Business was good, but in 1915, management was growing agitated at the constant attacks on their good name by competitors thirsty for a piece of the flourishing soda market. Slow trademark litigation (and, presumably, low literacy levels) were making life too easy for copycat brands like Koka-Nola and Toka-Nola.
And so it was legal counsel, Howard Hirsch, who set things in motion. A call went out to the corporation’s bottling partners to come up with a packaging design that would make imitating Coca-Cola a more difficult and costly enterprise.
No-one envisaged the impetus Hirsch’s initiative was about to add to the soda brand’s future.
The Accidental Classic
500 miles away, in Terre Haute, Indiana, the Root Glass Company heard the call and set to work.
Their vision relied on curved lines that made the bottle comfortable to hold. Their design made sparing use of green glass (“Georgia Green”, to be specific) and featured the company logo elegantly embossed at the bottle’s widest and most legible point. Obvious allusions to the female form were incorporated to create a distinctive and seductive silhouette.
It was an object that industrial design legend Raymond Loewy would one day describe as the “perfect fluid wrapper”.
But Root’s design was also a real-life example of how perfection can also be the outcome of a happy accident…
By incorporating a lightly fluted surface around the bottle’s circumference, the designers at Root Glass Company enhanced both form and function – creating an ornate object that could be easily gripped. But it was an idea that had only occurred to them after studying the ridged skin of cocoa pods. By mistake, they had believed the exotic fruit to have more than an alphabetical relationship to the equally exotic coca leaf – Coke’s main flavour ingredient. (Thank God they didn’t mistake it for a coconut is all I can say).
Fortunately the contest judges weren’t about to let a botanical blunder cloud their decision, and so the company began the enormous task of convincing more than a thousand bottling partners to adopt the new design and embark on a transformational journey.
It’s the Real Thing
When the soft-drink giant gave the new bottle the go-ahead, it’s doubtful they could have ever imagined it would still be serving them – along with billions of consumers – a century later. Over the years, the design of the Contour bottle has been tweaked to stay in step with tastes and keep the brand vital, but it remains essentially true to the original blueprint.
Has any brand succeeded the way that Coca-Cola has in turning packaging – a brand support – into a brand in its own right?
When the Contour bottle’s patent finally expired in 1961, the company succeeded in getting it protected as a trademark. It was a shrewd move (driven, once again, by their legal department) that has often proven useful. The bottle and its silhouette provide a secondary level of branding: a canvas that can be painted with more freedom, spirit and vitality, allowing their primary logotypes to get on with the job of driving awareness and trust.
It must have been difficult at times for Coca-Cola to stay committed to an old object in a market that constantly demands youthfulness. Packaging fads, the quest for innovation and even the bottle’s own ubiquity have often threatened to devalue its stature, but never its existence. The Contour bottle has always been managed with agility, sometimes pushed into the front-line, other times in the background. Its role in our image of Coca-Cola alternates between functional, symbolic and experiential (“the best way to drink a Coke”). Its design informs brand identity throughout the Coca-Cola universe.
Even as the Coca-Cola brand has struggled to maintain its ascendency in recent times, the Contour bottle continues to be regarded with ever-warmer fondness. Even after a century, it still manages to delight us.