Designing Coca-Cola: David Butler and Linda Tischler’s new book on the makings of a mega brand
The book reveals how using design across all departments should be a core consideration for big business
“Design is key to the running of corporations, and should be part of all their functional areas, write David Butler and Linda Tischler, co-authors of Design to Grow: How Coca-Cola Learned to Combine Scale and Agility (and How You Can Too).
Butler, the vice-president of innovation and entrepreneurship at The Coca-Cola Company, and Tischler, a senior editor of Fast Company Magazine, say employees across the board often serve as de-facto designers in small ways. “Each of us designs stuff every day,” say the authors. “We design meetings, presentations, deals, our plans for the weekend, and so on.”
In their 256-page collaboration, Butler and Tischler show that design is central to success across areas ranging from supply chain to brand development and explain how designers connect the dots to see a company’s bigger picture. At Coca-Cola, design disciplines led to several international successes, from the launch of the company’s I LOHAS water brand in Japan, to more practical shelving in tiny Latin American outlets, and more flexible crating in Hanoi and East Africa.
Design to Grow explains how teams can design either for scale or for agility. Designs for scale usually require simple, standardised and integrated operations that run with the least possible resistance to efficiency. Recruitment is key here, as the best-designed organisations are “like Bayern Munich” and “built to win”, the authors say.
Meanwhile, companies designing for agility can introduce modular, interchangeable, Lego-like components in branding or systems design, whether to expand to new areas or respond to market changes.
Implementing such strategies successfully depends on having the best possible internal communication as well as solid teamwork. Butler counsels designers to approach corporations with a “we” – instead of a “me” – mindset. “Remember, it’s never about you,” he writes. “It will never work, if you’re trying to somehow leverage the company, the brands, or the people you work with to make a big name for yourself. People can see that a mile away.”
Designers should also drop the arty jargon, speak simply, and listen, to encourage input from everyone and learn more. Butler reveals how he achieved corporate “buy-in” at Coke, by explaining that “design was not an esoteric discipline owned by an elite team at corporate headquarters, but an everyday responsibility that extended to every functional area of the company”. In order to get the maximum value from design, everyone has a role to play, he says.
The authors tell companies when and where to start discussing design: Butler advises designers to assist departments where there is an immediate need first, to develop “quick wins” and internal credibility. His initial tasks at Coca-Cola also reveal the corporation’s most receptive areas to design, and could prove useful as a departmental roadmap for Hong Kong counterparts.
“We began with an area that most people could easily understand — branding and communications,” he explains. “We then moved to packaging and equipment. Then, we tackled retail experiences. Finally, we expanded the approach deeper into the operations of the business, into our distribution system and supply chain.”
The authors present useful discussion guides that can help companies establish why they need a new approach to design, and then discuss how such an approach can be implemented. They also show how key teams can make mind maps illustrating the links between ideas, and then go on to identify problems and prioritise these issues.
Critics might see Design to Grow as a promotion for Coke, but Butler and Tischler have created a refreshingly enjoyable business read. They capture the uncertainty of Coca-Cola’s early days and the entrepreneurial spirit of its distribution strategy, as well as offering engaging anecdotes about the brand’s bottle designs, jingles and social media.
The book and the brand might have been more likable, however, if the authors had also highlighted the things we can learn from some of Coca-Cola’s design mistakes.
They could also have devoted more of the book to advising companies on finding the right design talent, and reminding designers that much of the corporate world still runs on the bottom line. Designers must pitch effectively for corporate business, and Design to Grow explains how to do so, in simple English. Some bosses might be reluctant to share product and system information with arty-talking outsiders, who might then bill them by the hour for intangible conceptualisation.
Other business leaders in high-overhead, job-hopping Hong Kong might also recoil at Butler and Tischler’s references to the "design to fail" or learn-as-you-go approach to innovation, particularly when the authors reveal the eventual success of Norm Larson’s "water displacement formula", WD-40, at the 40th attempt. To many budget-conscious Hong Kong boards, such examples of rare success after persistent failure reaffirm perceptions of design as a potentially nebulous extra cost on valuable floor space.
However, the authors warn that "design to fail" is rife in app development, quickening the pace of innovation, and intensifying brand competition. Boards must open their companies to innovation, ahead of rivals, or lose business, the authors say, in seemingly breathless references to Blockbuster, Blackberry and Kodak.
This book should appeal to bosses renewing a corporate image or contemplating a start-up. Its advice on meeting concepts could also get staff to talk to each other more. After all, Hongkongers love discussing design, and many departments might open up to the authors’ inclusive guidelines.
This article appeared in the Classified Post print edition as Business by design.