The biggest soft drink brands in the world are iconic not just as beverages but for the entire brand concept and imagery that exists around those drinks.

Playing no small part in this is the recognition attached to their packaging, an area in which cans have a large role to play. Colours for example are a large element at play here, being instantly recognisable towards certain brands. It is notable to the extent to which the most successful brands have in part achieved iconic status by staking a claim on bold, simple shades.

However, as demographics begin to shift, how do these brands adjust their imagery? In light particularly of sugar taxes and considering the broader health movement, traditionally sweet soft drinks have to change up their iconography even as alternative health brands double down. The question then becomes whether these changes are able to tap into a new market, or do they risk losing customers who have such an established image of a brand?

Cementing a classic

In the case of Coca-Cola, the predominant company in the field of soft drinks, their most recent approach has been to double down on the iconic nature of their product by attempting to create a singularity of iconography across the Coca-Cola varieties. Under the broader “Taste the Feeling” campaign, all Coca-Cola products now use ‘The Red Disc’ as the principal graphic on the can. In essence, rather than the, arguably iconic in its own right, silver can you may typically associate with Diet Coke, you will now see a can prominently featuring a red disc with the signature silver peeking out behind (the same design can be seen with Coke Zero’s black and Life’s green).

“Packaging is our most visible and valuable asset,” said Marcos de Quinto, Chief Marketing Officer, The Coca-Cola Company. “The Coca-Cola Red Disc has become a signature element of the brand, synonymous with great taste, uplift and refreshment. By applying it to our packaging in such a bold way, we are taking the next step towards full adoption of the “One Brand” strategy, uniting the Coca-Cola family under one visual identity and making it even easier for consumers to choose their Coca-Cola with or without calories, with or without caffeine.”

The approach is notable in that it does not attempt to shift the products’ demographics; Coke is already offering Life, Diet and Zero as options for the more health conscious consumer after all. Instead, the campaign is playing off the notion that regardless of a change in the perception of drinks such as the regular version of Coca Cola, the product is iconic enough that people will place brand loyalty as a priority above any other change. The notion: everything else is changing but you know what you’re getting with Coke.

Health initiatives

 Such change is not without criticism however; as Quartz titled its article regarding the change, “Coca-Cola may have just hit on its worst marketing idea since New Coke”. The point elucidated by Quartz, and probably the central issue with the One Brand move by Coca-Cola, is that the alternative versions of Coke (Diet, Zero and Life) were notable for their own design already. Life is perhaps too new to be significant but Diet’s silver and Zero’s black cans could certainly be argued to be iconic in their own right. In sidelining their signature colour, the company may be risking distancing their customers.

While they may not be buying into the health trend, in fact they could be seen to be ahead of it with the three lower sugar versions already available, Coca-Cola is reacting to a shift in market focus. Although the specificities of their changes may be questionable, the broader approach of refocusing on the iconic nature of a brand has been adopted elsewhere by products such as Jolt Cola. A fairly popular energy drink from the mid-80s through the 90s, the drink was superseded by brands such as Red Bull but is now returning with its original can design, presumably hoping to tap into the nostalgia of its image.

Although the returning Jolt will apparently make use of sugar not corn syrup, the double-caffeine cola is hardly a health brand. And although Coca Cola has invested plenty into health initiatives, it was revealed in 2015 that the company had put millions into healthy-eating initiatives and obesity research, it was also reported by the company last year that its sales remained stable in spite of the backlash against sugary soft drinks. Diet Coke actually slumped in the fourth quarter as Sprite sales rose; although it is possible customers were simply switching from Diet Coke to Coke Zero which saw a sales increase greater than that of Diet Coke’s slump. Clearly, health is far from the only selling point for soft drink brands.

Showcasing design

Other companies are similarly looking to refocus their brand image but, deprived of the strength of such a strong brand as Coca-Cola, are instead making use of new technologies. For example, Lipton Iced Tea made use of a thermochromic design as part of a promotion for the Tomorrowland festival. The design, which sees the can’s surface graphic change as it is chilled, is as perfect example of how manufacturers are making use of packaging to elevate their technology beyond brand recognition. While Lipton’s thermochromic promotion may have played more into the novelty aspect, on a broader level it appears essential for brands to produce fresh designs in order to maintain an interest in brands that may be resisting change in other areas.

With research by The Can Makers, the trade body representing drinks can manufacturers in the UK, and market researchers GfK finding that more than half of consumers will drink from a can at least once a week, creating a design that stands out from the crowd is important. Moreover, the can itself is offering advantages that even brands not looking to change their overall aesthetic are looking to take advantage of.

As explained by Benjamin Punchard, Senior Global Packaging Analyst  at Mintel, “I’m not sure I’m seeing a massive effort by brand to redesign their cans. However I am seeing a greater willingness for brands (particularly smaller niche brands) to embrace the can.  The image of cans as a pack type for low cost beverages and less practical (due to the lack of resealability compared to PET bottles) has been challenged by the growth of cans in the craft beer segment.

“It is particularly the younger consumer being targeted with cans and hence good design is an important part of appealing to this group (evidenced by Mintel research that shows younger consumers far more likely to rate attractive packaging as an important factor driving product purchase).  As such we are seeing a growing shelf space in store given over to cans with striking designs.”