From Zero to Hero: How Coke
taps into behavioral science

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Andy Wardlaw, Chief Ideas Officer

07 Apr, 2021 | 3 minute read

Packaging doesn’t only set expectations about a product – it can actually determine how we experience it. Andy Wardlaw applies behavioral theory to an example from Coca-Cola.

When Coke Zero ditched the all-black can in 2018, leaving only a narrow black band at the top (below), I offered three reasons why I thought this move was a ‘masterstroke’.

First, it made Coke Zero easier to buy, thanks to an expanded wall of red (better physical availability). Second, it promoted healthier choices by making shopper decisions feel less polarizing. And third, it would shift our perceptions of the liquid experience by better mimicking the experience of Classic Coke. Not afraid to tinker, Coca-Cola has just given its no-calorie hero a further design tweak, dropping the remaining band of black at the neck of the can. This is significant because it represents a key point of contact between drinker and the drink! In this new design, Zero’s legacy hue is woven into the core Coca-Cola insignia. The makers claim this will “enhance consumers experience of Coca-Cola even further”.



The opportunity here is to apply behavioral science and sensory science to create total user experiences that are brilliantly primed and beautifully aligned.

Surprisingly, the ‘best practice’ evident in this Coke Zero example is not usual practice. Pack design and product development are generally undertaken in separate spheres. So, at this time when many innovation processes are resetting, shouldn’t we recalibrate around the total user experience – acknowledging the interaction between brand, pack and product – and help to realize the opportunity to create enhanced experiences? Just like Coke Zero is shooting for?

Related to this, Dr Sara Bru Garcia makes a point about cross-modal perception. “We know that inputs received by each of our senses do not work in isolation. One study has found that sweetness is better conveyed by rounded packaging and typefaces, for example.”

Small changes that acknowledge the connection between pack and product can have dramatic impacts.

So, as part of this reset moment, let’s consider closer ties between pack and product development to elevate user experiences.

How so?

From what we know about the power of packaging, this latest change will once again shift consumers' expectations of the liquid – informing our perceived realities of the Zero experience and making it seem even closer to the original.

Doctor Sara Bru Garcia of The Together Agency refers to the power of Associative Learning Theory, which has decades of robust experimental study behind it. It teaches us that learned expectations can be transferred between different stimuli that are perceptually similar.

“This phenomenon, known as stimulus generalization, highlights how, by making new Coke Zero even more perceptually similar to Coke Classic, we can estimate that consumers’ expectations about these two products will align more closely.”

Related to this, we have expectancy theory, which asserts that packaging not only sets up our expectations of a product experience, it actually shapes the way we experience it. Again, it’s a theory that has been tested many times. For example, in 2008, we learned that the exact same smoked-salmon ice cream could be strongly disliked or perfectly accepted simply by varying the description applied to it in advance.

I use my words carefully here, but in essence, we don’t experience reality as such. Instead we experience our own unique interpretation of it. A perception. And perceptions are open to influence from our past experience and priming, as well as present sensory stimuli.

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