When David Butler joined Coca-Cola (KO) almost five years ago, he was given, as he tells it, "the Post-it Note mandate: We need to do more with design. Go figure it out." Butler, who had come from a gig as director of brand strategy at the interactive marketing and consulting firm Sapient, had soon written up a 30-page manifesto laying out a design strategy for the company. But if Butler, who's now vice-president for design, has made an impact at the beverage giant, it's not because of some heady proclamation. Instead it's because he has learned the most effective way to implement design strategy at a company as large and complex as Coca-Cola: avoid the word "design" as much as possible.
"If I'm at a meeting with manufacturing people, I'll say: 'How can we make the can feel colder, longer?'," he says as an example. "Or, 'How can we make the cup easier to hold?'" In other words, he talks about the benefits of smart design in a language to which those he's talking to can relate. Based on several recent brand redesigns—including the new Coke identity work that won the Grand Prix at the Cannes Lions awards program in June—and innovations such as an aluminum bottle and a new family of coolers, this surreptitious approach seems to be working. Butler leads a team of 60 designers—a mix of graphic and industrial designers, some poached from companies such as Apple (AAPL), Nike (NKE), MTV (VIA), Target (TGT), and Electrolux—at four centers around the world. All are focused on what Butler describes as a "fix the basics" strategy.The Old Simplicity Gone
While there are few companies with a richer design heritage than Coca-Cola, in recent years the company seemed to have lost its design savvy. The iconic Coke "contour" bottle, adorned with the globally recognized script and the simple ribbon graphic, for instance, had given way to a plastic bottle or aluminum can on which the logo had to compete against random bubble graphics, extraneous marketing messages, or seasonal images. When Butler reviewed the state of design at Coca-Cola on his arrival, evaluating everything from the branding created for the then-recent 2004 Olympics in Athens to the process that the company's 300-plus bottling partners went through to get approval for new bottle designs to the customer experience of buying a Coke from a vending machine, he found a lot that needed fixing. Coca-Cola was a global company with 450 brands, more than 300 different models of vending machines, innumerable bottling and retail partners, and no consistent global design standards.
It wasn't that the company had forgotten about design altogether. Former president Steven Heyer, who resigned in 2004 after being passed over for the CEO job, helped start Studio Red, a collaboration with hip New York design and architecture firm, Rockwell Group. As Tucker Viemeister, then creative director of Studio Red says: "Our mission was to be innovative in any aspect that we could. We had this gigantic canvas." Studio Red came up with lots of interesting projects: the Coke Cruiser (a scooter with a cooler at its front conceived as a mobile vendor at festivals or concerts) as well as a tasting salon, a retail environment where people could sample a new drink like Coke Zero. But many of them never made it beyond the concept stage.