Design Matters: Coke does an end run with OK Cola

The following column examines and critiques commercial design, as well as provides commentary on current issues and trends in the design industry.We read in The Globe and Mail last week a short article about a revered Harvard professor who has conducted...

The following column examines and critiques commercial design, as well as provides commentary on current issues and trends in the design industry.

We read in The Globe and Mail last week a short article about a revered Harvard professor who has conducted a study on people claiming to have been abducted by space aliens.

His findings recognize the physical limitations that prevent such occurrences – not the least of which is that alien ships would have to travel at the speed of light to get here – and he concludes these events must have taken place in a ‘parallel reality.’

If you are asking what this has to do with design, we’re not surprised.

But, there is a purpose to the opening anecdote.

As we cast our eyes back towards the most interesting package design of 1994, we see that one of the biggest brands on Earth has developed a ‘parallel’ brand that recognizes the wacky professor’s theory.

It’s called OK Cola.

ok (which is the reverse of ko – Coca-Cola’s trading symbol on the New York Stock Exchange) is the distillation of Coca-Cola’s attempts to colonize (abduct?) the youth market.

What is so interesting about this product is that, in many ways, it goes against many of the marketing techniques that Coke has used for decades.

If you look back at its advertising campaigns of yore, from the Coke-suckin’ cowpokes of the 1940s, to the beach blanket bimbos of the 1960s, it has always been able to fit into the prevailing lifestyle trends, and has done so without having to adapt.

Rather, the world seems to have adapted to Coca-Cola.

The basic one brand, one company, one world strategy has worked for several generations, and in as many cultures.

Witness the translation of the Coca-Cola wordmark and wave into a language such as Arabic: the visual property makes the transition without missing a beat. The equity remains intact, even in Addis Ababa.

Now, however, one of the world’s most visible brands has taken on the world’s most opaque market: disenchanted youth.

And, instead of trying to penetrate the ice, the mother of all brands has done an end run around itself and re-emerged as the soft-drink equivalent of film noir: dark, angst-ridden, gritty and cynical.

The ok label designs borrow heavily from the visual language of underground comics, and spare no energy in lampooning their subjects.

Populated by dazed, exhausted and deadpan figures, the layouts seem to amplify the mood of dislocation and depression that Coke wants us to believe today’s youth is experiencing.

One label places a upc code directly over the face of an illustrated character, as if to suggest this hapless human has just been stamped by some manic technocrat in a world motivated by artificial intelligence.

The kicker is that it’s true: the upc code is real.

In a rather camp celebration of banality, the legal and nutritional text (usually in the Cinderella role) is here given heroic treatment, thus drawing farcical attention to its bureaucratic utility. Once again, the truth hurts.

One very interesting twist is the inclusion of long, disjointed narratives, printed at sub-legible levels within mortises that appear to be randomly attached to the labels.

These fractured fairy tales not only add to the Kafkaesque absurdity of the concept, but seem to suggest that young consumers are far more literate than their predecessors.

How, we ask ourselves, can a company with the missionary zeal of the u.s. Marine Corps and the single-mindedness of a paramecium on steroids recombine its dna in such a radical way?

It would be like Ken and Barbie going to the MIT Media Lab for a makeover, only to come out looking like Ren and Stimpy.

Does this mean Coke is no longer It ?

Has Coca-Cola recognized that the new generation just won’t buy into the corporate monolith?

What does that mean for Coke five, 10, 20 years from now? Is it set on an irreversible path of reinvention?

In the current issue of ID Magazine, the ok program’s designer, John Jay of Portland, Ore. ad agency Wieden & Kennedy, answers in the language of an mba in marketing:

‘It’s all a matter of expressing a brand’s core values.’ This suggests the ok brand shares the values of today’s youth.

But, that yields a contradiction: if today’s youth distrusts corporate slickness, then Coca-Cola, one of the world’s slickest corporations, must distrust itself. We think not.

According to the anti-consumer broadside Adbusters Quarterly, ‘OK Cola is Coke’s mission statement for the alienated youth of America and possibly the world.’

If that is the case, the mega-sodamaker has accepted the existence of a parallel universe, which unlike our own, is one in which giant corporations are the enemy, hovering like empty voice balloons above their helpless victims.

Meanwhile, back in our own universe, the mother ship purrs contentedly, its equity as unassailable as a Romulan Bird of Prey.

Will Novosedlik and Bob Russell are principals of Russell Design in Toronto.