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Coke- It's the Real Thing!

In making its presence known to a thirsty public, Coca-Cola's familiar bright red background, cursive script logo and contour bottle has been printed, painted, postered and plastered on the sides of delivery trucks, on billboards, and on buildings in just about every major city around the world.

By Louis M Brill

Coca-Cola - a simple thirst quencher and soda developed in 1886 of colored water and secret flavors, has sold continuously for over 120 years and became world renown, both for its brand and for its international marketing presence as a thirst refreshment.

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  • As a beverage brand, it spans three centuries from the end of the 19th century, is currently sold in nearly 200 countries, and is the company's # 1 product earning 60% of its $20.5 billion in annual sales.

    In making its presence known to a thirsty public, Coca-Cola's familiar bright red background, cursive script logo and contour bottle has been printed, painted, postered and plastered on the sides of delivery trucks, on billboards, and on buildings in just about every major city around the world.

    As brand recognition, it's advertising heaven; it's a product name that has universal recognition as the second most popular spoken word (the first being 'Okay'). Its cursive script (even to millions of people who can't read or speak English) is easily recognized as its familiar logo on its bottles or cans. And speaking of bottles, the Coca-Cola bottle, with its distinctive shape (see sidebar), has been before the public eye continuously for 86 years.

    Coca-Cola has millions and millions of loyal fans who are quick to protect that loyalty as represented by the great outcry in 1986 when the parent company sought to upgrade its flavor with a new and improved taste. From the great hue and cry that resulted, the company changed back to the original soda formula - calling it the 'Classic Coke' (truly the 'real thing!).

    Coca-Cola's origins harked back to a simpler and slower paced lifestyle of horses, railroad, and stage coach, all which were the main means of public transportation. It was a time when the Internet of the day was the telegraph wire. The Civil War had been over for 21 years and Grover Cleveland was the 25th President of the United States. It was 1886, on May 8th, to be precise, that pharmacist John Stith Pemberton stirred up fragrant caramel-colored syrup in a three-legged brass kettle. He carried a jug of his new concoction down the street to Jacob's Pharmacy, Atlanta's largest drug store at that time. At some point, by accident or design, carbonated water was mixed with the syrup to create what would become the world's most popular soft drink.

    By 1894, with the operation of several syrup manufacturing plants around the country, the company could proudly say that, "Coca-Cola was now drunk in every state and territory in the United States." In the same year it began a very proactive outdoor advertising campaign that has never stopped. A drugstore in Cartersville, Georgia became home to the first Coca-Cola outdoor painted wall, the forerunner of thousands to follow until it began a nationwide campaign of billboards in 1925.

    Its first outdoor advertising efforts were done with painted oilcloth signs placed on pharmacy awnings: DRINK COCA-COLA! (Circa 1896). Since then, every three or four years, a new advertising campaign and slogan is born. In 1904, it became a reminder as to why to drink it, "Delicious and Refreshing." In 1917, it was a note on its customer preference: "Three Million a Day!" Its 1929 theme, "The Pause That Refreshes," and in 1970, "It's The Real Thing" are two of the more popular themes that have made it into national consciousness as reminders of the drink's popularity. Naturally a lot of outdoor sign acreage over the years has ballied these themes to a thirsty public. This outdoor advertising has become a signature for the company and has culminated with many giant-sized, eye-popping billboards in all kinds of shapes and sizes and neon lighting configurations all around the world.

    As for Coca-Cola and sign making, probably every sign maker who's been around long enough has made or installed Coca-Cola signs in one form or another as a billboard, a print ad, or a painting on the side of a building (now that's going way back!). The Coke brand has had such an impact that its famous image has evolved from a brand (a trademark identifying a product or service) to an advertising icon (an image representative of a brand). While many companies have transformed their products into brands, far fewer have gained the distinction of their brands becoming an icon.

    The history of Coca-Cola in advertising is a walk through Americana and its love affair with advertising as the company has committed at one time or another to just about every type of outdoor advertising market. When billboards began, when radio began, and when television began, Coke was there. In each case, they were usually one of the first customers in each of these media's to promote its brand and get the word out.

    Coca-Cola wall signs have come and gone in America, many becoming "Ghost Signs" by having the signs hidden by new building construction. Many of these signs have inherited a second lease on life as they have been rediscovered. Phil Mooney who is the Coca-Cola company archivist in charge of the company's product and label history stated, "Nearly a month doesn't go by where the company hasn't been contacted by some American community who is tearing down an old building and is frequently finding old painted Coca-Cola wall signs. In almost all cases, the town’s people see this as a part of civic pride to have a Coke sign and want to restore them."

    Coca - Cola has had a such an impact on American culture that just about all Coca-Cola promotional materials have become collectibles, including just about every Coke sign that was every made (the older the better). In leafing through any number of Coca-Cola collectible books one can find almost the entire history of Coca-Cola themes and its related signs.

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    "Outdoor Coca-Cola signs are among the hottest and most desirable of all Coca-Cola memorabilia," says Mooney. "There was one past outdoor advertising campaign with a metal red Coke disk sign that had an interesting result. During the 1950s and 1960s these red signs were attached to almost every barn and restaurant in the United States and as fast as we put them up, collectors would come along and pull them off the building walls."

    "The earliest form of outdoor signs was oilcloth canvasses that were placed across the front entrances to drug stores alerting customers that the drink was there. Today any of these original oilcloths from the early 1900s are worth at least several thousand dollars each. The famous red disks, depending on their size and condition could go anywhere from $200 - $300, to around $1000 per sign. We've even seen porcelain signs from the 1940s priced as high as $2200."

    For all of the Coca-Cola Company’s advertising efforts, perhaps its most popular is the outdoor spectacular that graces many major cities in America, Europe, and through much of Asia. Each spectacular is distinct enough that a Coca-Cola sign connoisseur could immediately tell you which city it came from. Certainly each sign has the same red color and distinctive script letters, but at the same time, each sign is special in its shape, function and placement.

    Without a doubt, its most famous sign (and probably one of the most photographed signs in the world) is the flashing light and mechanical wonder in Times Square at Two Times Square, a building that has eliminated all its tenants and has become for all purposes, one of the most renowned sign towers in the world. Its most famous side the one facing south towards the center of Times Square includes the current Coca-Cola sign resplendent with neon, fiber optics and mechanized animation.

    Coke-Cola's presence on the 'Great White Way' actually goes back to 1920 where Times Square was the first choice for such a spectacular and a billboard was placed on the top of the Astor Theater at W 54th Street. Since then, the sign has evolved considerably, both in glorifying its visual presence with new appropriate display technologies. In 1923, neon was first attached to the Coke billboard and it flashed "Drink Coca-Cola" and "Delicious and Refreshing." At that time it was the second largest (75 feet by 100 feet) electric sign in the world.

    In 1932 it moved to its current home on Two Times Square where several different Coke signs have appeared over the years. The current Coke-Cola neon spectacular in Times Square emerged in 1991 as a perfect mixture of sign technology including everything from mechanical animation to neon, fiber optics, and at least five computers to keep the sign's mechanized actions synchronized and in fine form.

    The current Times Square sign was built and installed by Artkraft Strauss (NY, NY) whose president, Tama Starr recalls the major components and mechanics of one of the most popular Coke signs in the world. "The sign incorporated a three-dimensional construction of the famous Coke bottle, its cap and an animated straw that repeatedly popped off the bottle. As an animated sculpture, the Coke bottle periodically leaned forwards as its six-foot bottle cap was flipped off and a giant eight-foot red and white, candy stripped straw emerged from inside the bottle and began the cycle of emptying out the bottle's contents."

    The centerpiece Coke sign is approximately 55-tons and showed off a forty-foot tall Coke-Cola bottle resting in a monumental mound of internally lit ice cubes. The emptying and refilling of the coke inside the giant bottle was accomplished with at least 63 miles of fiber optics embedded within the molded fiberglass of the bottle. When unlit, the bottle appears full - as the light goes on behind the fiber optics, the beverage appears to vanish as it appears to be quenching some invisible giant's thirst.

    Coke signs not only appear as billboards but as destination markers. A Coca-Cola memorial was the temporary establishment of the Las Vegas Coca-Cola museum dedicated to all things Coca-Cola and known as "The World of Coca-Cola" (1997-1999). To make sure that the hundreds of thousands of daily visitors could easily find the Coca-Cola museum, a one-hundred foot replica of its bottle was attached to the front of the museum. The bottle looks like it would easily satisfy the thirst of the Jolly Green Giant, another icon/brand, is actually an elevator shaft sending visitors to the second and third floors of its gift shop. Visitors entering will also have a pleasant surprise inside the elevator car as they ascend to the gift shop floor.

    In San Francisco, its new baseball park, the Pacific Bell Park, offers the Coca-Cola Fan Lot which includes a giant replica of the world's most famous glass bottle. The bottle sculpture is an 80 foot long reproduction of a contour curved coke bottle created by concept designer Gerard Howland of The Howland / Ford Company (Sausalito, CA). The bottle is designed as a multi-function statement and acts both as a playground and as a home run 'flasher.' The bottle interior includes two stainless steel slides that run the length of the bottle for kids of all ages to ride on. When the Giants hit a home run or win a game, the bottle top with its huge bubbles lights up for home runs.

    In the interest of keeping up with the modern activities of outdoor advertising, Coca-Cola decided, having entered the 21st Century, that it was time to reinvigorate the Times Square sign, thus the Tilting Bottle (1991 - 2004) was retired and replaced with a new, one-of-a-kind spectacular. That newly commissioned Coca-Cola display that emerged was a six-story high, high resolution, LED video display of unusual proportions. First off, it was shaped to look like a 'deconstructed' soda can. In this design, the screen was divided into 32 facing sections and composed of a series of concave and convex display sections that all fit together like a gigantic crossword puzzle.

    The LED sign was designed and fabricated by Daktronics (Brookings, SD) using their ProStar technology. The sign face was composed of over 2.6 million LEDs with both a 16.5mm and a 23mm pitch. The sectioning of the screen into its different display segments also allowed for a more interesting integration of its Coca-Cola content that was presented on the screen.

    Much of Coca-Cola's power is in their international name recognition. It is perhaps one of the most powerful advertising campaigns created in that you can go almost anywhere in the world and buy a Coke on the street or in any convenience store in at least 200 countries. Now that's a sign of staying power!

    Louis M. Brill is a journalist and consultant for high-tech entertainment and media communications. He can reached at (415) 664-0694 or


    • The first advertisement for Coca-Cola appeared in the Atlantic Journal on May 29th, 1886.
    • When billboards in America were just getting started, (known at that time as a '24-sheet poster') the Coca-Cola company saw it as a great way of reaching out to the American public that was just getting into cars and hiway usage. By the 1930s, nationwide there were over 160,000 Coca-Cola billboards.
    • To transform Coca-Cola from a seasonal (spring-summer) drink to an any-time/all year long beverage, the company began to promote Coca-Cola during the winter months. In doing so, the company's holiday advertising featured a fat 'ol jolly man with a huge white beard, wearing a red jump suit and holding the familiar Coca-Cola bottle. This more than anything else popularized Santa Clause into modern culture.
    • The Coca-Cola Company estimates that hundreds of millions of people drink its flagship product every day.
    • The company currently distributes its products in nearly 200 countries.
    • The Coca-Cola Space Can first appeared aboard the U.S. Space Shuttle during a 1985 mission. Until then, no soft drinks had been consumed in outer space because no one had found an adequate way to dispense carbonated beverages. The solution: A special sprout was attached to the can which pumped the soda out and squirted it into the astronaut’s mouth.

    COCA-COLA'S brand is well acknowledged that its logo is comprised of three distinct graphic elements that all combine to create its final universally recognized look, which includes its cursive script. its white swirl and its famous contour bottle. The bottle has such a unique shape that it's become a world-class icon and placed by itself in an outline form, just about anybody would recognize it as a Coke bottle.

    How the bottle got its contour shape amounts to an anti-counterfeiting technique that came about in a bottling design contest in 1915. back in the early part of the twentieth, Coca-Cola's popularity, success and generic packaging invited many, many competitors and imitators. To thwart the many copy-cat bottling companies that were getting in to the soda craze, the Coca-Cola Company came up with a novel strategy. At issue was the fact that a properly kept coke was one that was chilled in a cooler. The problem was that when a thirsty customer reached into an ice chest, they were more than likely to grab the first bottle they found and go off with it to drink. The Coca-Cola Company was looking for a way to distinguish itself from all its competitors as one bottling executive put it, "We need a bottle which a person can recognize as a Coca-Cola bottle when they feel it in the shaped, that a person could tell at a glance or a feel what it was."

    To put form into this elusive concept, the Coca-Cola company, in 1915 sponsored a bottle design competition which listed only two requirements: 1) the bottle must be distinctive and 2) the bottle must fit with its existing bottling equipment.

    The winning design was supplied by Earl R. dean, a mold-shop supervisor of the Root Glass Company of Terre Haute, Indiana. In the course of thinking about a new bottle design, the question was asked, "What is Coca-Cola made of ?" In this research, Dean had found sketches of the coca bean which had convolutions all around it and a 'pinch' in its basic shape like the Coke bottle came to be. Dean copied the sketch, showed it to his boss and told him it could be easily transferred into a bottle. A mold was made, glass poured and a series of prototypes created which were submitted into the competition. In 1916, at the next Coke bottler's convention, all entries were judged and the Root bottle was chosen as the winner. By 1920, the contour bottle became the standard for the company and the rest is history.
    Louis M. Brill

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