Karma Cola's co-founder on rejecting uniform design principles as a challenger brand

Coca-Cola may strive for aesthetic uniformity across its varied product ranges, but fair trade challenger brand Karma Cola believes in the power of a varied and experimental approach to packaging design – and has a tattooed fan base to show for it.

It’s a West African water deity named Mami Wata that encircles the bottles and cans of Karma Cola’s hero drink. Illustrated with Mexican features through curving tribal lines she looks down upon the devil below her: she is the Karma and he is the Cola.

The angel-daemon illustration by Beck Wheeler represents the brand’s awareness of its duality. Sure, it’s an ethical, organic, sustainable fair trade competitor to one of the most powerful conglomerates on the planet, which also happens to empower the Sierra Leonean farmers of its cola plants via its foundation. But its product also contains a lot sugar.

As co-founder Simon Coley, puts it: “It’s not great for you. But it tastes fantastic.”

Yet when Karma Cola came to launching its next product, a ginger beer dubbed Gingerella, Coley and his team opted for a design miles apart from graphic Mexicana. The soft ale’s packaging is dominated by the face of a beautiful woman with a flaming, Jean Shrimpton bouffant mane. She gazes into the distance, accompanied by psychedelic type.

“At the time there had been a ginger beer launch in New Zealand that took the piss out of people with red hair,” Coley explained, referencing Hakanoa's controversial 'swap your ginger child for a six-pack' campaign. “So we thought, why don’t we do the opposite and celebrate gingerness?”

Then came ‘Lemony’ lemonade and its whistling citrus cartoon mascot (the least stylised of all the designs) and ‘Summer’ orangeade’s beaming sun, which evokes memories of Nickelodeon kids’ cartoons. All are unique, eye-catching and personable – and none look alike.

It’s an interesting strategy to take, given the current penchant for ‘storytelling’ a brand’s entire portfolio with easy-to-follow jumps from one product to the next. This is exemplified by Coca-Cola’s ‘one brand’ strategy, which was developed from the insight that ‘not everyone understands the options available to them and the benefits of each drink’.

“The idea of dialogue through visual communication is really important to me, and it felt right to give these [drinks] personalities,” says Coley. “They’re strong, they’re engaging, and they have more affinity with people than a series.

"We get strong feedback on the characters from our fan base: Gingerella is tattooed on a man’s arm and a woman’s breast. Limmy Lemon’s been tattooed on people. Harley Davidson took 100 years for that to happen – we’ve been around [in the UK] for four.”

If anything ties the drinks together aesthetically, it’s their faces.

“They’ve been designed with eyes so they’re looking back at you, because we’re hardwired as humans to look back at people’s eyes.” explains Coley. “There’s a trick that cereal packaging designers use [whereby] they make the cartoon’s eyes look down from the shelf. Ours ... look straight out at you, as they’re a little lower on the shelf.”

The detailing and insight enshrined in Karma Cola’s packaging design is at odds with most other drinks on sale in supermarkets. Staple favourites – Lucozade, Dr Pepper, Fanta and the like – continue to rely on their recognisable logo type set against some sort of bright, geometric sunburst, and give pride of place to the brand name.

Newer, more premium competitors such as San Pellegrino and Fentimans have taken inspiration from early 20th century labelling, focusing on painted illustrations and decorative script.

But as the true Antipodean outsiders (the brand was launched in Coley’s home of New Zealand), its founders needed the product packaging to work harder for people’s attention.

“Most of the products we’re up against put ‘organic, fair trade, yada yada yada’ on the front, and there’s a lot of them," says Coley. "So, if we can engage someone with a picture – if it can just look good – then we’ve got permission to tell them all sorts of things.

“Sure, it would be great if we singled out [our fair-trade credentials] so people picked up on them quickly...but then there wouldn’t be as many tattoos."

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