On Nov. 16, the iconic Coca-Cola bottle celebrates its 100th birthday. It was patented on Nov. 16, 1915. 

By most counts, the bottle was--and remains--the ideal marriage of form and function, not to mention an early example of how a brand can differentiate itself through design and packaging

Bob Williams, assistant professor of marketing at Susquehanna University in Selinsgrove, Pa., is researching a book on vintage marketing campaigns, including Coca-Cola's. I recently spoke to him about about the legacy of this landmark bottle. Here are five takeaways:

1. The bottle gives Coca-Cola's brand an authenticity few can match. "You can't buy 100 years worth of anything unless you've done it for 100 years," says Williams. 

Mind you, it's not just the 100 years. It's that Coca-Cola has not changed the font or colors of its logo for all of those years. "Unlike other competitors or manufacturers who feel the need to refreshen their logos from time to time," says Williams. 

2. The bottle was initially designed to meet a business need. 
Coca-Cola started as a fountain drink. It was initially bottled by independent pharmacies. They typically used all sorts of cylinder-shaped containers, which were commonplace at the time. The good news was that the drink became portable. The bad news was that these were not Coca-Cola bottles, per se; the bottles did not always look alike.

What's more, everyone was using cylinder-shaped bottles. There was nothing to distinguish Coca-Cola bottles from other drinks. So in designing its bottle, Coca-Cola aimed for distinction in shape. This is why the bottle is curved.

There are varying anecdotal accounts of what the slope of the curve is based on. Some say it's the shape of the cacao bean. Some say it's the narrow-hemmed, aptly named "hobble skirt," which was popular at the time (but impeded walking). Some say the curve was easier for customers to hold in their hands. Regardless, the point was that the bottle's curve gave it originality and distinction at a time of homogeneous packaging. 

3. The packaging gave Coca-Cola a distribution advantage. Once the beverage was bottled, it was no longer something you could only drink in a pharmacy or store. It was now available via horse-and-buggy distribution and customer carry-outs. "The distribution area was the distance a horse and a carriage and a cart full of soda could go without tiring," says Williams. "Which was much further than the distances people were walking."

In addition, the bottling allowed Coca-Cola to strategize about its distribution. The company began to put bottling plants in large cities to maximize the range of the product. When trucks began to take over distribution chores from the horse and buggy, Coca-Cola was already thinking in terms of how to spread the product nationwide. 

4. Coca-Cola's bottle was the rightful ancestor of all the distinct bottles you see today. One bottle that comes to mind for Williams is the POM Wonderful "double bulb" bottle, which is like no other you'll see on shelves. In addition, the "O" in POM is shaped like a heart. Together, the logo and packaging show a distinct respect for the playbook behind Coca-Cola's iconography. 

Another beverage company Williams mentions is NOS Energy Drink. In the logo, the front end of the "N" becomes an arrow that runs over the top of the O and S. NOS actually stands for Nitrous Oxide Drink, and the package is designed to look like a Nitrous Oxide cartridge. If that seems weird to you, its probably because you're not hip enough to have watched any of The Fast and the Furious films, where the drivers use "NOS" to make their cars go faster. 



5. The bottle and logo were part of a massive marketing push. If you think we live today in an era of countless coupons and promotional products, you should have seen the ephemera Coca-Cola stamped with its logo 100 years ago. The list, says Williams, includes pencils; waxy paper sleeves to prevent your hand from getting wet as it held the bottle; the driver license holders people kept in their cars back then; and public clocks. 

Coca-Cola also ran numerous ads featuring coupons for free drinks. "They understood that people had to try it and find out what it was," says Williams. The larger point is this: While the bottles and logo were important, they didn't do the work alone. Coca-Cola made sure its branding--and its product--were familiar. And no risk to try.

Published on: Nov 13, 2015