Design to Grow

Coca-Cola's usage of design thinking as a part of it's strategy to reinvent itself and grow

The word “design” brings to mind any number of things. These days, it’s de rigeur for the word to conjure up images of Steve Jobs and how he transformed Apple by making design a key differentiator in all of the company’s products. It is probably just as common to associate design with architecture (think “Frank Lloyd Wright”) or furniture (think “IKEA”). Yet for all of the things we may associate with design, it stands to reason that among the last things that come to mind are, most likely, beverages.


But then comes along David Butler, Coca-Cola’s Vice President of Innovation and Entrepreneurship, who makes a strong case that design is at the heart of the beverage maker’s worldwide success in the upcoming book, Design to Grow.


Co-written with Fast Company’s Linda Tischler, Design to Grow relates the various ways that Coca-Cola has used design thinking as part of its strategy to reinvent itself and grow. Originally a single-product company, Coca-Cola is now a global behemoth that has been recast as a “total beverage company”—and to hear Butler tell it, design has everything to do with their success.


“Design is about intentionally connecting things to solve problems,” Butler and Tischler write. Not quite as intuitive as Steve Jobs’s description that “Design is how it works,” but perhaps just as meaningful. Viewed through this lens, much of Coca-Cola’s product development and marketing decisions are cast into a new light. From the choice to work with bottlers and local distribution networks, to storage solutions that allow the soda to be served in the optimum way (chilled to 36°F/2.22°C thank you very much), to the consistency of its brand image the world over, and so on. Design is behind it all.


These very deliberate moves by the company were aimed at solving two seemingly contradictory problems:  scale and agility. The former pertains to a business’s capacity to grow without sacrificing product quality (and without disproportionately increasing costs), while the latter involves a company’s ability to remain responsive to market realities and change its business model, if need be. Scale is often within the ambit of established businesses, while startups are the ones more capable of exhibiting agility. Each requires specific disciplines to execute properly:  scale is often achieved through simplification and standardization, agility is often achieved through modularization (of products, processes, or decision-making). Much of Design to Grow is devoted to describing measures taken by Coca-Cola along these lines.



It is to be expected that Design to Grow paints Coca-Cola in a positive light. To be sure, the book succeeds as a case study of things that Coca-Cola has done right that other businesses can learn from (with the added benefit of learning more about the company’s history along the way). Likewise, it is also interesting to learn about the various initiatives that Coca-Cola is undertaking around the world that brings livelihood to local communities and/or address the global problem of clean water. However, it is disappointing that the book does not delve into more detail on the biggest problem caused by sugary drinks—obesity—and what the company is doing now that consumers are becoming more health-conscious. Granted, it isn’t the subject that the book was written for, but one would have expected more than the brief mention it was given between covers.


Regardless, the best part of Design to Grow is that it is written to be useful for seasoned executives and startups alike. Indeed, a key realization that Butler and Tischler hope to convey is that the global startup ecosystem has changed the business environment, and that even established companies can easily go the way of the dinosaur in the blink of an eye. With innumerable startups hungry to disrupt the markets of longstanding players, it is as incumbent for large companies to learn how to be more agile in much the same way that startups need to understand what needs to be done in order to increase scale. Anyone who follows the work of Clay ChristensenEric RiesSimon Sinek, and others will find kindred spirits in Butler and Tischler, and a worthwhile bibliography in the book for their trouble.



Get the book here!



Posted 30th January by  on
Edited by Bryan Troutt