Fast Company

Experience the Real Thing

A Coke bottle, one of the most recognizable shapes in the world, gives shape to the Coca-Cola branding experience in Las Vegas, where nostalgia, storytelling, and technology create a magic formula.

You are inside the largest Coca-Cola bottle in the world, a four-story structure, illuminated by neon and incandescent light, that serves as a shaft for two glass elevators. As you begin to ascend, you hear the crack of a soda bottle being opened. The compartment is filled with the fizzing sound of carbonation, followed by a wet slurp, a satisfied "ahhh," and the brand's "lyric logo" -- a persistent tune that will play in your head for the next day and a half: "Do-do-do-do-do, always Coca-Cola."

Then the doors slide open, and a straw-hatted barker who looks like he's just stepped out of the 19th century greets you and ushers you into a Coca-Cola fantasyland. There, you'll hear testimony to the significance of Coca-Cola in people's lives. And at the end of your visit, you may want to purchase a knickknack or two as a souvenir of this new Coca-Cola memory.

No, this is not the museum in Coca-Cola's hometown of Atlanta. This is the World of Coca-Cola Las Vegas -- an attraction that, although about half the size of the Atlanta museum, draws the same number of visitors: about 1 million each year. Here, visitors are led through 28,000 square feet of lore and labeling, and end up in a shop that is the largest and most heavily trafficked of Coca-Cola's five U.S. retail stores. (It also has the highest volume in sales.) Billed as a walk through Coca-Cola's history, the attraction is ultimately a tour through branding magic. More than anything, the attraction lets you the experience the "real thing."

Coke Is Personal

Deborah MacCarthy, now the manager of Coca-Cola's College Channel, was head of attractions when the Las Vegas exhibit was developed. "We wanted to bring the brand to life, to tell the stories of Coca-Cola, and to express Coca-Cola's core values: fun, refreshment, and specialness in people's lives," she says. "Think about it: Is there any other brand that is so special to so many people worldwide?"

What the Las Vegas attraction makes clear is one source of Coke's appeal: Great brands are personal. They become an integral part of people's lives by forging emotional connections. Coca-Cola Las Vegas uses the interpretive techniques of museum design, "living history," and digital storytelling to evoke emotions and personal memories, repeatedly asking one of Coca-Cola's core marketing questions: "What does Coca-Cola mean to you?"

"We positioned the Las Vegas attraction for consumers," says Barbara Charles, an exhibition designer with Staples & Charles, an Alexandria, Virginia design firm. "We wanted them both to remember and to tell their Coca-Cola stories."

Coke Is Nostalgia

Strictly speaking, what you're experiencing isn't history -- at least not history in the raw. Rather, it's history seen through a Coke bottle: a highly carbonated look at the past. First stop: the late 1880s. Asa Candler has recently bought the company, and a bottle of Coca-Cola costs a mere five cents. "And over here," the barker announces, leading you through mahogany-colored doors to a steel vault, "is a replica of where the secret formula is kept in the Trust Bank, in Atlanta. And here," he says, gesturing to three oval-framed paintings, "are our founders. Coca-Cola was invented by Dr. John Stith Pemberton, as a tonic for stomach upset."

Up the road from the vault is a "genuine" 1930s Atlanta soda fountain that has been retroactively desegregated. A friendly soda jerk guides visitors through the alchemy of making Coca-Cola the old-fashioned way: one ounce of syrup; five ounces of soda water; and four swirls of a spoon -- no more, no less.

Coke Is IT

Next, visitors descend an escalator. Nostalgia evaporates, and the room pulses with color, water, and song. Along a 25-foot-long video wall filled with five screens, an elephant does a lumbering dog paddle through topaz water to retrieve a Coca-Cola from a raft; Indian boys play cricket; an Asian girl walks through a field of red pinwheels. The installation is dynamic and indigenous -- a montage of Coca-Cola television commercials from around the world, set to the music of each locale.

There's also a fountain, consisting of 1,000 mock Coca-Cola bottles arranged in rows on curved risers. From the mouths of the bottles, big drops of water pop up in time to a complex, computer-controlled, choreographed program. Place a cup under one of seven cafeteria-style Coca-Cola dispensers that line the fountain, and, from somewhere across the rows of bottles, a perfect rope of water shoots into the air, travels in a clean arc, and nose-dives into a receptacle on top of the dispenser without making a splash. Coca-Cola then streams into your cup as if from the fountain itself.

WET Design (http://www.wetdesign.com), a company based in Universal City, California, created the fountain. The company's founder and CEO, Mark Fuller, led the team from Disney Imagineering that created Epcot Center's Leapfrog fountain, in which streams of water play a mischievous game of tag. The Coca-Cola fountain uses the same technology: A patented device about 12 inches in diameter and 30 inches long contains a series of flow-straightening filters. The aggregate cost: about $1.25 million.

Coke Tells Stories

At the center of the floor is the emotional heart of the whole attraction -- a storytelling video theater created by Dana Atchley. Atchley specializes in using new technologies to help companies tell emotionally engaging stories. The theater doors automatically close, and a guest-relations representative welcomes the audience and then uses a touch-screen monitor to select one of seven "show sets." Each set starts with a fun, upbeat real-life story. In one story, participants at a Coca-Cola -- memorabilia auction are asked, "Do you do it for love or for money?" The answer, of course, is that people do it for love. At the end of the story, two people who met at an auction get married at the World of Coca-Cola Atlanta.

Next comes a brief, animated game show, during which the audience is scored on its knowledge of famous Coca-Cola personalities. That's followed first by a series of "fun facts" and then by an emotionally resonant piece. In one segment, an Indiana man tells of carrying a Coca-Cola bottle with him through World War II. The man returned home from the war and placed the bottle on his fireplace mantel. Decades later, his house burned down -- but the Coca-Cola bottle remained intact.

The show closes with a brand story (one piece traces the history of the secret formula), and at the end of the show, the host invites audience members to type in their own Coca-Cola stories using computers that are located just outside the theater. In the first three weeks that the attraction was open, 1,800 people recorded their stories.

"Any presentation has to have a dramatic arc," Atchley explains. "We wanted to create the sense of a journey, with a call to action at the end. If I give a presentation that's intended to sell, I tell a story whose call to action is 'Purchase my product.' In Las Vegas, our goal is to get people emotionally involved in the brand -- so much so that they're ready to spend big bucks in the retail store downstairs."

Jill Rosenfeld (jrosenfeld@fastcompany.com) is a Fast Company senior writer. Visit Coca-Cola on the Web (www.cocacola.com).

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