“You don’t have to be a global agency to speak to Coke”, says design chief James Sommerville

From start-up consultancy to global company, Coca-Cola’s vice-president of global design James Sommerville’s 29-year career has seen him go from design experimentation to customer-focused business. With Coca-Cola’s new “one brand” positioning set to roll out, we speak to Sommerville about his switch in career, and why even iconic brands need refreshing.

James Sommerville, Coca-Cola's vice president of global design
James Sommerville, Coca-Cola’s vice president of global design

“When I was working at Attik, we found it very difficult to break through into global brands,” says James Sommerville, who co-founded Attik in 1986 alongside Simon Needham. “Quite often it was impossible to get through the door. I’m trying to reverse that – you don’t have to be a global agency to speak to Coke.”

During his time at Attik, the consultancy completed many successful refresh projects for brands including Heineken, Virgin, Sony Playstation, Adidas and, in fact, Coca-Cola itself. Sommerville and Needham designed a series of books called Noise, where they focused on creating new, imaginative design experiences, which Sommerville says is an essential skill for any young designer.

“There was no commercial strategic intent with these books,” he says. “It was really about design exploration. Experimentation is key for young designers – they need to do great design that pushes them.”

Up-and-coming designers should focus on stretching themselves creatively to get the attention of “grown-up” brands and consultancies he says, which can then partner with them and work with them on strategy. “Clients want wowing,” he says. “They want to know where the next trend in design is coming from, and young designers have an amazing advantage of providing that.”

Work by Attik for Coca-Cola
Work by Attik for Coca-Cola

But even though beautiful design can help you stand out, moving on to business later in life can give you a plethora of skills, he says. After a 26-year stint, Sommerville left Attik in 2012, and went on to join the Coca-Cola design team the following year. There, he embarked on projects such as the brand’s visual identity for the Rio 2016 Olympics and the Share a Coke name bottles campaign.

The move to a more customer-focused way of working has helped to develop Sommerville as a designer. “Attik was successful but we were kind of doing the same thing,” he says. “There is a point in a designer’s career where they should see the other side of the design world. I did 25 years at an agency, so it’s not like you have to rush, and you can maybe come back again later.”

The Coca-Cola team’s aim of a bespoke customer experience was what led the company to undergo the Share a Coke campaign – which personalised a product that is sold in the billions. Sommerville says: “We talk a lot about mass intimacy. The brief was about driving consumption as business. From a business side, it was very successful, and from a design side, it was effortlessly simple.”

And simplicity often garners great design he says, naming some of his favourite works of the last century as classic car design, architecture – and Sharpie pens. “It’s so everyday, you don’t notice it, until somebody says ‘This is really iconic’,” he says. “Some products we just look at and admire, while others are in the store around the corner. The one thing that they all have in common is great design thinking and aesthetics, but functionality as well.”

New packaging developed as part of Coca-Cola's "One Brand" positioning
New packaging developed as part of Coca-Cola’s “One Brand” positioning

This dual purpose of successful and attractive commercial endpoints needs to play into designers’ work for big companies, he says: “Designers very quickly jump onto what’s cool rather than what’s right,” he says. “Commercial design work has to be representative of the values and strategic direction of the client they may be working for.”

He adds: “In a big organisation, I’m challenged to think in a different way from before. It’s good to get out of the day-to-day, repetitive pattern we all fall into it, to become a more rounded creative.”

Looking at his most recent project, this attribute of looking at design from different perspectives is one that Sommerville clearly feels is very important. Through the Coca-Cola design “mash-up” campaign, Somerville asked a selection of designers to create their own graphic interpretations of the iconic contour glass Coke bottle, limited to the colours of red, black and white – which he says helped to convey each designer’s unique style while keeping the recognisability of the brand. The project was to mark the 100-year anniversary of the launch of Coca-Cola’s contour bottle.

“We use the phrase ‘familiar, yet surprising’,” Sommerville says. “We wanted to add a twist to the communication, that makes people think ‘I recognise this, but I’ve never seen it like that before.’ You can really see the individuals within the work – this adds a very strong layer of emotion.”

Forward Going Backward, 2014, designed by La Boca as part of the Coca-Cola "mash-up" exhibition
Forward Going Backward, 2014, designed by La Boca as part of the Coca-Cola “mash-up” exhibition

Through inviting designers to humanise the company, Sommerville hopes to create a “design talent ecosystem” with which Coca-Cola can use designers’ various skills and strengths to enhance its many brands.

“Some of the images will be selected for our global system – we may see one piece of design and think, ‘That might not be right for Coca-Cola, but would be amazing for Powerade or Fanta’,” he says. “With the mash-up, we’re respecting the story of our archives but moving the design forward and creating something new – the book’s not finished.”

He adds: “What started life as a poster could be moved forward to many different connection points, including packaging, point of sale, product licensing and digital. This is great exposure for the artists themselves, and commercially makes good business sense for us in being able to leverage their work.”

The Coca-Cola portfolio includes a range of style he says, from the “gaming” edge of the energy drinks to the “hand-drawn, natural” look of the juices and hydrated waters: “You can see the different personalities of our mash-up designers and overlay them against our brands as well.”

Example of new Coca-Cola outdoor advertising
Example of new Coca-Cola outdoor advertising

And with the upcoming launch of Coke’s new brand positioning, which aims to unify all its products under one umbrella and features work from Turner Duckworth, Epoch Design and Bulletproof, Sommerville thinks that the future of iconic design still lies in the physical and tangible. “As humans, we like to connect with a brand,” he says. “Something physical has a greater connection than a purely digital brand. I think iconic brands in 100 years will still be born out of something that’s very simple, real and part of life – like the Sharpie pen.”

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