A History of Coca Cola Can Design


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"The soda can represents an evolution in disposable technology and the American way of life. Its portability, storability, stackability, and recyclability reflect a society on the move. Like the automobile, the soda can symbolizes American independence and our cultural preference for convenience packaged in novelty and fun."

—Benjamin Raybourn

For over 130 years, the Coca-Cola Company has cultivated an image that is deeply ingrained in American identity. Its contoured glass bottles and bright red cans conjure a sense of classic Americana.

But Coca-Cola’s ingenious packaging has evolved significantly since the company's pharmacist founder Dr. John Stith Pemberton first sold his syrupy concoction at an Atlanta soda fountain in 1886.

From early 20th century glass bottles to modern, interactive aluminum cans, Coke's packaging has been reshaped by shifts in materials, manufacturing capabilities, consumer lifestyles, and marketing strategies.

Tracing the history of Coca-Cola cans reveals thoughtful design evolution built around enhancing portability, visibility, and desirability. It is clear that Coca-Cola’s innovative packaging has played a pivotal role in cementing its position as the world’s leading soda brand.

This post will delve into key milestones in the Coca-Cola can's 120+ year journey from heavy steel to lightweight aluminum. Examining how changes in can shape, size, and functionality aligned with emerging consumer preferences.


A coke can made out of steel
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At the time, cans were a relatively new packaging format, having only been put into widespread use during World War II to transport food and beverages to troops overseas.

Steel was the material of choice as it was sturdy and allowed for pressurization of the can. The conical shape was common early on as it increased strength and enabled manufacturing using existing materials and machinery.

When Coca-Cola decided to offer canned versions of its sodas in 1955, cans were still a novel concept for the average American consumer.

Glass bottles remained the standard package for soft drinks.

However, cans presented a number of advantages that made sense from a business perspective. Cans were lighter, reducing shipping costs. They were less prone to breaking, which reduced waste. They were quick chilling and, with the addition of the pull tab in the 1960s, easy to open on-the-go.

For Coca-Cola, the potential benefits of cans likely outweighed any early skepticism.

As a leader in bottled beverages, the company saw a major opportunity to change the game and adapt its marketing and distribution model to align with evolving consumer habits.

While early can designs seem rudimentary by modern standards, they represented an innovative shift that helped ensure Coca-Cola's continued dominance as a global beverage brand.


What the first aluminum can looked like
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The evolution of canned beverage technology took a major leap forward in 1965 when Coca-Cola first tested sodas in flat-top aluminum cans.

While steel cans had proven functional, there were clear advantages to the aluminum alternative that Coke's trials sought to validate.

Foremost, aluminum represented a lighter-weight container, reducing material costs and shipping fees. This also made cans easier for consumers to carry and store.

From a marketing perspective, aluminum's malleability versus rigid steel offered expanded branding real estate. Soda cans transitioned from purely functional vessels to movable billboards promoting Coke's trademark logo and colors.

Technologically, aluminum enabled superior thermal properties to keep contents cooler longer. This addressed a consistent consumer complaint around warming soda in steel cans.

By matching glass bottles' capacity for chill, aluminum cans came closer to replicating Coke's iconic taste and drinking experience.

Coca-Cola's test markets of aluminum in 1965 demonstrated savvy consumer analysis.

Seeking to align packaging to lifestyle changes, Coke capitalized on aluminum's advantages in portability, branding and taste preservation. Though initial tests were limited, they paved the way for aluminum to become the standard cans are made from today.


The shape of the next coke can
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When Coca-Cola imprinted its famous contoured bottle shape onto aluminum cans in 1967, it represented a branding masterstroke from the beverage giant.

Though soda cans were gaining popularity, they lacked differentiation in a crowded market. By emulating its iconic glass bottle in aluminum form, Coke created instant visual recognition and resonance.

The contoured can was a breakthrough in translating brand identity seamlessly between packaging formats.

Consumers had a sensory and emotional connection to the Coca-Cola bottle's shape. Its curves evoked feelings of refreshment and Americana. Stamping this silhouette onto cans allowed Coke to retain that equity and familiarity.

Instead of ceding brand awareness as cans eclipsed bottles, the contour would safeguard Coke's market dominance.

The move displayed Coca-Cola's prescience around the power of design in marketing. In an increasingly competitive and crowded retail landscape, brand visibility mattered more than ever.

The contoured can ensured Coca-Cola stood out on shelves and in coolers. It also represented a commitment to refreshing an old brand for new generations of consumers.


Coca-Cola tested different sizes of cans
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In the early 1960s, Coca-Cola's foray into canned soda was still finding its footing in terms of ideal can sizes.

While launching with conical steel cans in 1955, Coke tested out smaller 12 and 26 oz cans in 1960. However, it took another two and a half decades before the now ubiquitous 12 oz can format took hold in 1984.

In the interim, variety and inconsistency in can sizes prevailed. With bottled soda still dominant through the 1960s, cans were seen as a secondary packaging format and experimental vessel.

Without major competition from Pepsi and other brands in the canned soda space yet, Coca-Cola had freedom to try different options.

While the 12 oz can debuted in 1960, early tests targeted niche use cases like concession stands versus mass market release.

Through the 1970s, Coke canned soda in assorted portion sizes including 10, 12, 16 and 28 oz options. It wasn't until the 1980s, when cans outsold bottles, that streamlining can sizes for efficiency and brand unity became a priority.

The rise of vending machines, soda's evolution into an on-the-go beverage, and growing competition from Pepsi in cans catalyzed Coca-Cola to finally commit to the now standard 12 oz can size in 1984.


A moder pop-top can
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The invention of the pop-top can tab in 1975 proved a pivotal innovation that helped boost Coca-Cola's canned soda sales past their bottled counterparts by the late 1970s.

Previously, accessing cans required an external opener, limiting their on-the-go appeal. The integrated pop-top tab eliminated this friction, providing quick, convenient access wherever consumers went.

For a beverage brand like Coca-Cola building an identity around enjoyment, accessibility was key.

While glass bottles maintained an emotive tie to Coke's heritage, they were heavy and prone to breaking. Steel cans addressed these drawbacks but still lacked user-friendliness until the pop-top came along.

By integrating the opening mechanism into the can itself, it became truly portable and functional away from home.

Now able to be enjoyed anywhere, canned drink consumption was liberated. With Coca-Cola's distribution savvy, it capitalized on this shift better than competitors. By making its products ubiquitously easy to drink, Coke outflanked other soda brands to become America's top canned soda purveyor by the late 1970s.


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The advent of plastic soda bottles in 1978 signaled a seismic shift in the beverage industry.

However, while plastic gained adoption it did not spell the end of Coca-Cola's canned soda sales. In fact, cans continued flourishing as a packaging format, even surpassing bottles in popularity by 1996.

When plastic was introduced, its benefits were clear—cheaper to produce than glass, lighter than cans, and shatterproof. Many predicted aluminum cans would become obsolete as plastic took over. However, Coca-Cola's savvy positioning of cans ensured their viability even against fierce plastic competition.

Through the 1980s and 1990s Coke marketed cans as the ultimate portable, fun, on-the-go soda vessel.

Cans became a fixture of music festivals, picnics, and any activity away from home. Coca-Cola also made cans the centerpiece of major marketing campaigns like the Mean Joe Green ad, cementing it in the public imagination.

Even while plastic bottles matched convenience and affordability, Coca-Cola ensured cans retained a "cool factor".

By aligning them to youth culture and outdoor recreation, Coke made cans a lifestyle for generations of soda drinkers. Their light weight, ease of storage, and sustainability also kept cans relevant despite plastic's rise.


A kid looking through VR
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In 2011, Coca-Cola once again made history by unveiling the world's first interactive can.

Using augmented reality technology, the cans enabled drinkers to interact with virtual content by scanning the packaging using their webcams. This innovative integration of the digital and physical represented a new frontier in Coke's storied packaging legacy.

By 2011, consumer behaviors and technology had vastly transformed since Coke's first canned soda over 50 years earlier. In an increasingly networked society, Coca-Cola saw an opportunity to blend its iconic brand heritage with cutting-edge tech engagement.

The interactive cans provided rewarding experiences via mini-games, product facts, and social sharing features. This allowed Coke to foster deeper connections between drinkers and the brand. Each can became a portal to unique entertainment and virtual collectability, offering continued value beyond the physical product.

In pioneering interactive cans, Coca-Cola affirmed its marketing was as innovative in the digital age as it had been in print, radio and television advertising epochs.

Blending its old school charm as the classic American soda with startup-like technical innovation allowed Coca-Cola to keep attracting new generations of drinkers in an ever-more competitive beverage market.


What Coca-Cola's skinny cans look like
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The introduction of skinny cans by Coca-Cola in the late 2000s and early 2010s exemplified the brand's continued evolution to align its packaging to shifting consumer preferences.

As the 2000s saw a societal focus on health and wellness, traditional 12oz soda cans carried a stigma of contributing to obesity and sugar overconsumption. By releasing sleeker, taller cans in smaller 250ml portions, Coca-Cola aimed to reposition itself as a provider of sensible mini-moments of refreshment.

While responding to changing attitudes, Coca-Cola was careful not to abandon its brand identity.

The skinny cans retained Coke's iconic curve shaping and dynamic graphics. This ensured the new format felt recognizably like Coca-Cola versus a radical departure.

The launch of skinny caused a ripple effect in the industry, with rival Pepsi developing a similar slim-line can. But as a first-mover, Coca-Cola's gamble was rewarded by strong consumer uptake especially among millennial and gen Z drinkers.

The edgier, proportioned cans better aligned with their lifestyle values.

Once again, Coca-Cola proved its marketing leadership by balancing legacy and evolution.

It responded to sociocultural currents through product design tweaks rather than abandoning its core.