Darren Whittington’s Polar Bears help turn Coca-Cola cans white

In November last year, Coca-Cola and World Wildlife Fund (WWF) joined forces in a bold new campaign to help protect the polar bear’s Arctic home. The drinks empire donated $2 million to the charity’s polar bear conservation efforts and asked its U.S. customers to join the ‘Arctic Home‘ campaign by texting donations which they would match up to another $1 million.

The company pulled out all the stops and boldly devoted its flagship Coca-Cola brand to raising awareness for the cause.

That’s where it all started. And here’s where it ended up:


Coca-Cola’s first ever white can features polar bears illustrated by Darren Whittington. More than 1.4 billion examples of the striking design will be on store shelves across the U.S.A. and Canada until the end of February 2012.

We spoke to Darren about the project from the illustrator’s angle.

Did the sheer reach and visibility of this make it different from other commissions? Was it at all un-nerving?

You put the fact that your work’s going to be seen – and hopefully bought – by millions of people to the back of your mind. Every job needs to be got right and you focus on that aim. It was exciting thinking how we were involved in transforming a design icon… but un-nerving? No.

How closely did you work with the designers?

I was involved from when it became a live project. I’ve worked with Turner Duckworth, San Francisco-based designers in charge of the job, before so they knew my work. I won’t say style, because this illustrative look was specially created.

They did a great job getting different stages approved. I’ve worked in agencies on big clients, and I have to thank the team at Turner Duckworth for managing the feedback so I could concentrate on getting the illustrations right. My part of the process took around two weeks from brief to delivery of the files.

Was there a temptation to make the bears cutesy? After all, you…

…I know what you’re going to say! Yes, I have done some very, very cute little furry friends in the past! But they were all done for a reason – like we wanted to get people saying ‘ahhhhh!’ to a simple, stylised image. (That’s not as easy as you might think incidentally.) With these characters, we took a decision early on that we wanted them to be simple and bold, after all, they had to be printed on a can and grab the attention of shoppers. But the nature of the project – WWF‘s ambitious plans for the Arctic – meant we had to be anatomically accurate and not overload on the Disney anthropomorphic soft stuff, all big eyes and long lashes. There were lots of pencil roughs before I went near the Mac which stopped it all getting too smooth early on.

Polar bears are majestic and powerful – and above all they’re wild beasts.

I think the way the face has ended up puts that across.

So a degree of realism was important?

One characteristic of polar bears we wanted to capture was that moment when a mother senses someone watching – she looks up and smells the air and turns her head towards where she thinks a threat might lie. You can read loads into that if you want – but I feel building in that reaction does help really fulfil the brief. I particularly like the way the second cub is copying what its mum has just done.

The cub drawings seem a bit more cuddly.

Again, that’s reflecting reality, but I didn’t go over the top. Polar bear cubs like all cubs are cute, aren’t they? And the packs where they appear solus are really cute too! It’s a real shame Coke don’t sell them over here [UK]. Apart from anything else I think they’d make Mae and George very proud of their daddy!

There was a bit of a fuss about changing the iconic red cans, wasn’t there?

When a product has as many fans as Coke, change ALWAYS creates a stir. And because the whole purpose of the exercise was to draw attention to an urgent and serious piece of conservation work – and raise funds for it – making waves is completely appropriate. The coverage it got across the Atlantic was worth millions. We knew it would make the news because of the very professional PR activity behind it, but the public’s reaction ensured more media and online communities picked up the story.

There was a bit of confusion apparently because Diet Coke has silver cans. On our white cans containing regular Coke, Coca-Cola’s world-famous logo was there in Coca-Cola red. Diet Coke cans also feature the word ‘Diet’, but hey… I’d better leave it there I think!

But Coca-Cola reacted, didn’t they?

Yes, there are versions of the can out now which show the bears against a heavy Coke-red sky with the logo reverting to white. It’s very striking actually. And in years to come the whole thing will be a case study for design students to learn about packaging. I look forward to being part of the history of such a famous, global brand!

We found the white cans being sold on eBay UK!

Yes. I have to admit that I’ve ordered some!

There was a pack costing something like a fiver but the postage was around the £40 mark…

I’ve gone for the empty version. The contents are classic but it’s the packaging I wanted!


Further reading…

The Telegraph: Coca Cola drops ‘polar bear’ cans because consumers prefer to see red

ABC News: Coke and Diet Coke Cans Should Be Polar Opposites, Buyers Say

The Dieline: Coca-Cola Red Cans Turn Arctic White


You can see more of Darren’s work in his Phosphor Art illustration portfolio, or visit his brand new website at: www.darrenwhittington.com


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