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What went wrong with Coke's 2011 holiday can design

The beverage giant has provided more than one example of the potency of packaging and how it can work for and against a company.
FILED IN:  Package design  > Strategy
Coke's white can for 2011 holiday seasonSterling Anthony

Coca-Cola’s packaging is iconic, both in structure and in graphics; therefore, when Coke’s packaging makes news, all other companies that aim to leverage packaging as a strategic tool should pay attention.  But first, some background.

In accordance with annual tradition, Coca-Cola (Classic) hit stores in holiday-design cans; except, this year’s design departed from the staid character of its predecessors.  The holiday can was white with the brand-name rendered in red—the reverse of the regular trade-dress.  Another departure is that the brand-name runs horizontally, not vertically.  Along the bottom, in silver, are depictions of roaming polar bears.  In that regard, the can was pulling double-duty, honoring the holidays and the company’s partnership with the World Wildlife Fund in acknowledging the threat that global warming represents for polar bears.

The white can, originally slated for distribution through February, has been discontinued, a move hastened by negative consumer reaction.  Holiday cans in traditional red filled the void for the remainder of the seasonal promotion.  It’s an obvious indication that plans when awry, that the ensuing consumer revolt wasn’t foreseen, or at least, was underestimated.  And while the fall-out didn’t match that from the infamous New Coke launch, it proves that consumers not only react demonstrably to product changes but to packaging changes, as well.

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Companies don’t own brands, people own brands

Some companies that speak of the consumer-franchise aspect of brand-building don’t always appreciate the ownership implications.  Regarding packaging, companies implement but the consumers render judgment.  Brand-loyalty merely is a measure of the degree to which the targeted consumers consider the brand to be “theirs”—emphasis on “theirs.”  So whatever a company does to their (the consumers’) brand, it had better be to the consumers’ liking, or else there will be consequences to pay.

In the consumer packaged goods (CPG) industries, the stronger the brand, the more likely that packaging is a major reason, and therein lies a dilemma.  The company has leveraged the functions of packaging (protection, communication, convenience, and utility) to its competitive advantage, over time, by varying degrees of tweaking; however, how long can a company afford to stand pat?  And what factors govern where on the evolutionary-to-revolutionary continuum should changes be made?  Even Coca-Cola, for all its status as a global brand, is not exempt from such considerations; for to err is to expose the brand (regardless of however established it is) to market loss.

Package design research is only as good as the validity and reliability of its methodologies and the creativity and expertness with which the derived insights are implemented—true of all types of research.  Companies should augment their research-derived knowledge with a systematic approach that incorporates all channels through which consumers express their opinions about packaging.  An 800-number hotline, for example, won’t fulfill its potential if there isn’t an effective means of categorizing packaging-related responses and conveying them to those within the company who can best act upon them.


The mighty minority

 An impassioned few can garner attention disproportionate to their numbers, especially in these days of multi-media led by the internet, a truth that a Coke spokesperson might have soft-pedaled in stating that the critics of the white can constituted a minority.  Incidentally, the statement is reminiscent of what Frito-Lay said of the critics of the Sun Chips bags, before pulling the noisy packages from stores. It’s human nature to desire praise, which explains why most of a typical company’s packaging-related inquiries are about what consumers like about the packaging.  Due regard should be given to discovering dislikes and evaluating their likely consequences.  Such is not an exercise in the impossible quest of trying to please everyone, but rather one of balancing and trade-offs; after all, every package design is the result of compromises.   

 A characteristic of the so-called minority is that they are stubbornly resistant to explanations as responses to their dislikes; in other words, they aren’t satisfied in knowing why a problem exists, they just want it solved.  So those claiming that the white can is confusingly similar to the silver can of Diet Coke aren’t appeased by a fact sheet posted on the company’s website, explaining how the two cans differ.  Besides, the need for such a tutorial contradicts the fact that packaging should communicate the brand’s vitals instantly (or at least within the second or two that packages have to arrest the consumer’s attention within a store environment).  Companies should accept this as a maxim: imposing undue requirements on consumers never leads to good results.

Nor should companies automatically disregard consumer complaints that obviously are illogical.  Case-in-point: those consumers who claim that the Coke in the white can tastes different from product in the flagship red can.  Such claims are nonsense, of course; however, that should not obscure their relevance.  It underscores that packaging is about perception and that perception is reality.  It shows that packaging and product are so inextricably intertwined that illogical perceptions should come as no surprise. That’s not to say that claims can’t be too wacko for consideration (the white can transmits radio signals from another planet), but that others should be evaluated for what they imply about the power of packaging.

The world will continue to “see red,” to Coke’s delight

The slogan goes, “Things go better with Coke,” but that’s not necessarily true in all instances.  But no shame attaches to the occasional snafu; it demonstrates that the company is not complacent, that it’s willing to dare.  It’s a main reason why Coke remains the category leader.  But boldness, alone, is not sufficient.  It must be teamed with a steep learning curve and alacrity in changing plans when results justify, two of Coke’s demonstrated abilities.

It’s mere coincidence that Coke’s latest packaging story comes during the holidays, but regardless of the calendar, any glimpse into that company’s decision-making process should be regarded by other companies as a gift-wrapped present.

Sterling Anthony is a consultant, specializing in the strategic use of marketing, logistics, and packaging.  His contact information is: 100 Renaissance Center- Box 43176; Detroit, MI 48243; 313-531-1875 office; 313-531-1972 fax;;


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