DT: When a Belgian magazine interviewed me not long ago, I discovered that there isn't a Flemish word for wit. It turns out the word is missing in many languages. It's an English word. Working here in the States, I find it fascinating that what many Americans most value about British design is wit.
Q: The drier the better, so far as I can tell. Let's talk about your work for Coca-Cola. I am a lifelong fan. I started collecting Coke bottles from other countries when I was a young lad. Your move to take the Coke brand back to its simplest element—the color, the wave, and the script—was so clever. (Is there a Belgium word for clever, by the way?) Did the idea go over well when first presented?
DT: I recently looked back at our first presentation of the simplification concept, and it looks pretty much exactly like what it came to be. When we showed the idea to their Creative Excellence Group, they got it, it was exactly what they wanted. But it was a long, hard sell to get other stakeholders with Coke to accept it. To be honest, the only reason it all happened was the Creative Excellence Group—especially Pio Schunker, Moira Cullen, and Frederick Kahn—were relentless
Q: What was the brief?
DT: We had been doing other bits for Coke, new brand stuff and reinterpretations of old brands—R&D, basically. Pio Schunker said he wanted us to work on the red brand. Hugely flattering, of course, though I wasn't the collector you were, because there's something about Coca-Cola branding and design. My business partner calls it the "Mount Everest" brand—the pinnacle.
Q: Consider the long history of greats who have touched that brand, J. C. Leyendecker, Norman Rockwell … all those wonderful old ads. All that wonderful, collectable "stuff."
DT: Precisely. A great, rich heritage. But I had concerns. Our creative reputation is more important to us than anything. I was afraid the sheer scale of the brand could consume us. I could see ourselves two years down the road with little great work to show for it and burned out to boot. I was concerned that it wouldn't be the best cultural fit.
But Pio told me that was why he was hiring us: he wanted an independent agency willing to fight for great creative. Reviewing recent advertising, I saw some very simple ads that had this great little sign off, "It's nice to have a Coke." And I thought, okay, they're finally getting it again. This really encouraged me.
Q: Your Coca-Cola brand story is the epitome of this book's thesis: discerning the equity and leveraging in a rebranding scheme. Talk to us, please, in those terms. How did you decide what element to keep and which to set aside?
DT: Let's say we were talking about a new brand, something you aren't familiar with. Or you might think you know what the equity is because it is predominant, like the color blue, for instance. Not so with Coke: we had a strong opinion on what equities were important. And that was reason we got to simplify it. The can, for instance, had all the key elements: the Spenserian Coca-Cola script, the dynamic ribbon, and Coke red. (It did not have another critical design element with vast equity: the contour of the bottle.) But it also was layered with different reds, touches of yellow, graphic bubbles, and water drops.
Many at the time thought all that other stuff had equity. We told them those other bits and pieces were diluting the brand's most critical equities. And because we talked equity, our ideas carried weight. We weren't perceived as just some designers who advocated change for change's sake. We convinced them that bubbles were generic to the category; it's not specific to Coke, it cannot hold equity. It was a great way to get the client to simplify and focus. There are very few things that are truly unique to that brand.
Q: But you didn't go back to the original look, right?
DT: Right. We did not want to go backwards. We wanted to use the past to help remind the audience what made Coke great. We wanted to take those things and make them modern and fresh. I think the reason the branding scheme has garnered so much attention is that we pulled off a neat trick: people see it and say to themselves, "Wow, this really is the Coke that I knew and loved." Well it is—and isn't: it's contemporary and new. I'm not quite sure how we pulled that off, but I am grateful we did.
It's amazing how so many people have a happy nostalgic association with the brand. There is something kind of magical about it, and that magic has been part of our culture for years. It's a great brand, and we're having so much fun working on it.
Q: So you were able to convince them that these key elements are your core assets and they are so strong that you don't need any others. And then you applied those assets to new ideas such as the aluminum bottle.
DT: Yes, contemporary ideas we could bring them using the same elements in a fresh way.
Q: On your website, you talk about a framework that values intuition and perception as highly as metrics. Can you talk about that?
DT: Long ago, my partner and I used to work at the same agency and there was a very smart, down-to-earth woman who worked in the financial department. She didn't know a thing about design but you'd always take your design to her. We called it the "Marion test." We'd say "Did it pass the Marion test?" She was an ordinary person who didn't pull any punches and told you the facts. Designers are prone to kidding themselves—we've got some brilliant ideas that we can't let go of and Marion would be the reality check. Our panel testing is based on the Marion test: it is a quick reality check with the right kind of consumer who helps us make sure we're not wasting time. We will interview consumers one by one, record, and then play the feedback to the designer working on the project that day at her desk. These consumers talk about the things that the designer just did, which means by the end of the day he or she could have altered and improved their design.
Q: Can you name a few other redesigns that have impressed you?
DT: I'm keen on the rebranding of Puma. Back in the '90s they decided that they were no longer a sports equipment brand but, rather, a sport lifestyle brand. So they embraced style and fashion in really interesting ways. They allow their leaping puma cat to be desecrated in some ways and yet somehow retain its integrity. They're creating a vibrant, youthful, exciting identity. Things like Alexander McQueen's version of their logo that's a photograph by Nick Knight that's half human/half puma and super sexy. Of course they have, like Nike, Apple, or any big retail brand, the advantage of constantly changing repertoire of products. A challenge with Coke is that it's the same product it's always been—and it's not going to change. You don't have a new high-tech version of Coke coming out to keep it interesting. Only the visual identity can do that. Another example I talk about from the fashion area is Burberry. I was speaking with one of the owners of the company one day, and he told me that it all started when they hired Kate Moss and put her in an ad wearing a bikini made out of their fabric. The intention was to make their raincoats a bit sexier, but what happened was the company got inundated with requests for a Burberry bikini. They were on to something. But you think about it a moment: a Burberry raincoat was a middle-aged English man's boring way of keeping the rain off his dull blue suit. It was a dull, stodgy, traditional pattern that was not cool at all. But then some smart branding people decided to work with this dull pattern—to push it as far as they could in every direction and make it cool. They realized their pattern was the biggest logo in the fashion industry—a logo people could wear all over their body. They were willing to play with it and not treat it with too much reverence or restriction. A modern brand identity has to be open, flexible, and adaptive. It has to interact with its environment. The more you let it adapt and change within its environment, the more exciting it is. The old approach is to apply the logo exactly the same size in precisely the same place on everything. This is what we call a gas station approach to branding that is outdated.
Q: So, do you drink Coca-Cola?
DT: I drink Coke Zero because I'm diabetic. I certainly drank Coke before that, but my whole day of carbohydrates in one can, I can't do. But my kids drink it. These drinks are getting a little bit of a bad rap these days, unfairly; I mean it's always had sugar in it, so it's all about quantity and how you fit it in to your lifestyle. I used to only have Coke when I was a kid when I was on holiday; so I always associate that taste with being on holiday, so it always gives me a good feeling.
Q: I had an uncle in Cyprus, and I went to visit him one summer. It was very hot there, very hot, and I drank Coke all the time. That's my biggest Coca-Cola memory. Nowadays, I really don't like it, it's too sweet for my taste. But, every now and then, I have to have a sip to remind myself of Cyprus when I was drinking it all the time with lots of ice and lemon.
DT: It's amazing how so many and have a happy nostalgic association with the brand, even you and you don't even drink the stuff. There is something kind of magical about it and that magic has been part of our culture for years. It's a great brand and we're having so much fun working on it.