Coca-Cola’s Sommerville Has Designs On ‘Mass Intimacy’

The history of Coca-Cola is a history of iconic design. From the logo to the contour bottle to the “Share a Coke” campaign, design has always been integral to the company’s success.

The person charged with taking this history and mentality into the age of interactivity and social media is James Sommerville, current vice-president of global design at The Coca-Cola Company. He spoke about Coca-Cola’s concept of “Mass Intimacy” at the Adobe Summit EMEA 2017 and, beforehand, he talked to CMO.com in more detail about his role, and about the impact that knowing more about customers has on design (Adobe is CMO.com’s parent company).

Sommerville: My role really involves the things that you see on the street and in the supermarkets when you buy our products—our packaging, our equipment, our experiential design, our digital design, so all the touch points that you would consider to be part of the brand language. Then, internally, we have things such as workplace design, and we’re now moving into design thinking and organisational design. The design conversation has got much broader at Coca-Cola, as it has at many other companies as well.

CMO.com: How is the growing emphasis on customer experience affecting the role of design at Coca-Cola?
It’s really changing many things that we do—even how we design our retail spaces, how we design our digital interaction, our packaging. Whilst we’re not asking the consumer to design our packaging, we’re really observing the way that they live their lives today.

The Coca-Cola Company’s a very consumer-centric organisation. Many years ago, a previous chairman said that we supply 1.9 billion servings per day of Coca-Cola, which is an impressive number. I think the way things are going, we will say in the future that we have conversations with—and know intimately—1.9 billion people. So we go from a metric relating to a serving to very much relating to a consumer and that dialogue between the company and the consumer.

We have a little saying in terms of personalisation within the design team called mass intimacy, and the reason we like that is we want that Coca-Cola moment—part of enjoying a Coca-Cola is it’s a great moment with friends, with family. So it needs to feel very intimate but, at the same time, our ideas need to scale. We’re all over the world, and we need to be there, but, actually, when you’re drinking that Coke, it needs to be very intimate.

CMO.com: Can you give me an example?
A great example of mass intimacy is the “Share a Coke” campaign. That was a very simple premise—driven through the packaging—of placing names on labels, and on bottles, and on cans—your name, my name, your partner’s name, your friend’s name.

What we found there was that the iconography and the typographic language of Coke can still work even if it says John, or Susan, or Lucy, but it feels very personal to John, Susan, or Lucy buying it, or maybe to friends of John, Susan, or Lucy. So the idea is that we’re creating something very personal, but, at the same time, we’re not diluting and losing the iconicity in the brand.

CMO.com: How will that idea develop going forward?
When we look at that example of personalisation, it almost takes on a life of its own. Because we’re in a selfie generation, it just catapults itself online. So then we start to have a conversation. We see a couple naming their baby, so they’re buying a Coke can with the baby’s name on. There are very personal and intimate stories involving our consumers all around the world, and that opens up a dialogue between the Coca-Cola brand and the consumer.

CMO.com: What implications does personalisation have for the skillset the design team will need going forward?
The skills designers need today are very different to what they were when I studied art and design, even to what they were 10 years ago. It’s a much broader set of skills to do with strategy and design thinking, agility and growth, and almost being quite entrepreneurial. Just to be a designer at a computer doing packaging, that’s just a fraction of the role now. It’s really much broader than that in terms of how you apply that design-led thinking to many other challenges and opportunities we face as an organisation.

CMO.com: How are your relationships with agencies changing?
At Coca-Cola, we still have many, many amazing creative partners externally, traditional agencies, and we need those guys. But there’s an undercurrent below that, which is all to do with maybe a talent-on-demand or direct-to-talent model, where we’re working with freelancers, or people still at art school, or who’ve just gone solo. We love to mine that talent, for two reasons. One, it can be much more dynamic, quicker, more agile. Then, secondly, we believe at Coca-Cola Design that we can provide a stage for emerging talent. Young designers, seasoned designers, individuals, duos—we can actually shout their name and use the power of our brand to communicate them because they’re in business as well.

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