What’s the best way to create instant brand-recognition and stand out in a monopolistically competitive market? Inimitable design.
Enter the Coca-Cola bottle.
In 1894, Mississippi shop owner Joseph A. Biedenharn began bottling Coca-Cola after he was impressed by its sales. He sold the drink to his customers in a common, unexceptional glass bottle called a Hutchinson.
Original Coca-Cola Hutchinson bottle
However, nearly two decades down the line, bottlers worried that a straight-sided bottle wasn’t distinctive enough, since Coca-Cola was becoming easily confused with ‘copycat’ brands. So, in 1915, the Coca-Cola Company launched a competition among its suppliers to create a new bottle for their beverage. They wanted a bottle that would distinguish Coke from all other bottles. They wanted
a bottle which a person could recognize even if they felt it in the dark, and so shaped that, even if broken, a person could tell at a glance what it was.
Earl R. Dean was the bottle designer and supervisor at the Root Glass Company of Terre Haute, Indiana. While brainstorming ideas for the bottle, he decided to base it on the kola nut, one of the key ingredients of the soda. Though he wasn’t able to find any information on the nut in question, he was inspired by a gourd-shaped picture of a cocoa pod in the Encyclopedia Britannica. Faced with the upcoming scheduled maintenance of the mold-making machinery, over the next 24 hours Dean sketched out a concept drawing. After explaining how he could transform the shape of the pod into a bottle, it was approved by his boss the next morning.
Earl R. Dean’s 1915 concept drawing
Dean then proceeded to create a bottle mold and produced a small number of bottles before the glass-molding machinery was turned off. He was able to secure a design patent in November 1915*.
One of the small number of original contour-shaped prototypes
During the 1916 bottler’s convention, Dean’s contour bottle was chosen over other entries and was on the market the same year. By 1920, the contour bottle became the standard for the Coca-Cola Company.
Today, the contour Coca-Cola bottle is one of the most recognized packages on the planet…“even in the dark!”.
*The original prototype never made it to production since its middle diameter was larger than its base, making it unstable on conveyor belts. Dean later resolved this issue by decreasing the bottle’s middle diameter, resulting in the design we know and love today.
Written by Yehong Zhu, Studied at Harvard University