"This is one place I find my inspiration,” James Sommerville says as he thumbs through vintage print ads in the Coca-Cola archives, pausing to backlight an original, 1980s-era negative atop a lightbox. In the illuminated image, a couple embraces, sharing both a moment and a Coca-Cola.

“There’s a story here,” Coke’s VP of Global Design says. “This is a classic moment of two young people coming together, and that moment is even more special because they're enjoying a Coke.”

When it came time to shoot the photography to visually represent Coke’s new “One Brand Strategy” and first new global advertising campaign in eight years, “Taste the Feeling”, Sommerville’s team set out to recreate magical moments like the one from the archives – with a look that simultaneously respected the brand’s past and visually articulated its future. The new work needed to juxtapose heritage with moderninity.

“We wanted to blur a few boundaries and create something very new and arresting for Coca-Cola, while triggering a memory,” he adds.

Video courtesy of Coca-Cola THRED

To dial up both the visual appeal and cool factor of the imagery, Coke partnered with a pair of noted fashion photographers – Guy Aroch from New York and Nacho Ricci from Buenos Aries. 

“Fashion photographers are trained to create an aspirational image that, in theory, appeals to people on multiple levels and transcends product or lifestyle photography,” Sommerville said. “We felt it would be an interesting experiment to apply these attributes to Coca-Cola."

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Coca-Cola Design provided creative guardrails and art direction but gave the photographers freedom to bring their experience and respective styles to the work. Sommerville challenged the team to fuse nostalgia and newness, familiarity and freshness, and intrigue and intimacy. 

“When James said he wanted to mix Norman Rockwell with Instagram or Snapchat, a light went on in my head,” Aroch said. “I knew we were on the same page.”

The images needed to retain the storytelling, exposed subconscious and visual architecture of a classic Rockwell painting, yet feel spontaneous, of-the-moment and part of everyday life, like Instagram.

"We trusted our visual instinct by collaborating and listening to what the subject and the situation was telling us," Sommerville said. "We looked for moments on set without too much scripting. We didn’t want the photos to look over-engineered, over art-directed or over-produced… things that can make photograph take five hours to shoot versus five minutes.”

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A set of core design principles guided the creative process. First and foremost, the iconic Coca-Cola bottle had to be center stage in every shot – supported by a contemporary use of color, texture and emotion.

“Without the bottle, the story simply would not be the same,” Sommerville explains. “It's always the hero and, when shown in context, tells a wider story. Normally when you take the subject out of the picture, everything stops. But the iconic quality of the Coca-Cola bottle enables the story to continue."

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It was also important to show people drinking Coca-Cola, any Coca-Cola, in the context of authentic moments. The drinking is purposeful, enjoyable and enhances the moment.

"There’s no rulebook that says you have to drink from the bottle in a certain way or at a certain angle," Sommerville said. "But, whether the subject is directly facing the viewer, off-camera or only partly in focus, or whether a big upright drink or a sip from a straw, we wanted to always communicate the love of Coca-Cola.”

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Coke tapped Maximiliano “Maxi” Anselmo, creative director at SANTO, to serve as art director. “It's all about stories. It always has been,” Anselmo said. “Until today, living in our cell phones, stories bring us together, ignite our imaginations and make us understand each other. Coca-Cola has always been a masterful storyteller, and we are once again, with this work, sharing stories.” 

Scouting the right locations, casting and wardrobe – and piecing together every minute detail – was critical. The talent includes a mix of high-end fashion and street-casted talent with guy/girl-next-door beauty but also a slightly gritty edge. "This blend provides aspirational images and a relatable feeling," Sommerville said. "Young people are constantly interacting with urban spaces in the strangest and coolest ways. We adopted a sense of street-style and everyday fashion, which is reflected in the imagery.”

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“All the stars have to align to create and capture a great moment… which makes a great image,” Aroch said. “If you place a Coke bottle with the wrong talent or on a cheesy set, all the authenticity in that bottle evaporates.”

Ricci shot on location in California and Aroch in New York. “The locations we chose are very humble,” Sommerville said. “The ‘tar beach’ rooftop where we shot in New York, for example, just felt like a spot teens would catch some sun on a hot summer day but within an urban context. It’s taking a slightly weathered environment – whether it’s a rooftop or a diner – and adding the polish of the product and the talent. Playing around with the rough and the smooth produces a humble quality but at the same time positions the brand in a strong light.”

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Ricci added, "Historically, Coca-Cola has done things that are beautiful, but youth today are so connected to what’s cool and what’s not. Advertising in the ‘90’s, where everything was so perfect, is not relatable to the current generation. This campaign brings both new dress codes and new acting codes to the Coca-Cola brand by presenting a more authentic point of view.”

The structure of the project represented Coca-Cola Design’s direct-to-talent model of collaborating with some of the world’s foremost creatives. Sommerville and Raphael Abreu, global design director at Coca-Cola, served as co-creative directors. They worked on set with art director Anselmo, Aroch and Ricci. Everyone clicked right away, and the opinions on set were contained to a very small group.

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“Normally a project like this would have been managed completely by an agency,” Sommerville said. “But we turned things around, and Coca-Cola Design effectively operated as the agency. We are building a very hands-on design team at Coke that on one hand delivers strong design thinking and innovation, but is also capable of delivering the final creative execution."

Streamlining the core creative team and removing a layer of decision-making yielded a more fluid on-set experience – and a better finished product.

“They way we worked was super clever and, not to mention, fun,” Aroch said. “Everything aligned to create this really collaborative dynamic. James, Maxi and Rapha kept things open so we could do our thing, without getting too prescriptive. They guided us just in the right way, going with the flow as things came up naturally on set.”

Check out these behind-the-scenes photos from the California shoot:

The team shot multiple scenes in a single location on the same day, with two camera units tag-teaming and trading ideas in real time. Anna Palma joined the crew on second camera for the New York shoots, taking product-centric stills and alternate snapshots to complement Aroch’s lifestyle images.

They worked without a set shot-list, improvising on the fly and incorporating people and props spotted on location. “Some of our favorite images were not scripted... literally we came up with the idea on set. We freestyled a lot,” Sommerville said. “We knew exactly where we were going and what we were doing, but then moved at an incredible speed and left room for creative exploration.”

Aroch added, “That’s how we like to work. Let’s run, not ask questions.”

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Another hallmark of the “Taste the Feeling” photos – which will appear in Coca-Cola print ads, billboards, retail displays and digital media around the world – is their intimacy and use of depth. Images are cropped and edited in a way that closes in on the Coke bottle and leaves interpretation up to the viewer. Not all subjects in the frame are in focus.

“It’s suggestive rather than literal,” Sommerville said. "We were intentional about not showing everything or telling a complete story because we want to invite the consumer into the image and let them fill in the gaps and complete the narrative themselves.”

Aroch added, “Editing was big part of the process. We stylised each photo in just the right way so it makes you want to be in that moment with a Coca-Cola.”

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The photos present the Coca-Cola brand in a new light… both figuratively and literally. Aroch developed a unique color-filtering technique dubbed “Contemporary Nostalgia” to create a signature visual style.

“These photos have a cinematic quality,” Aroch said. “Whereas with most advertising images today, everything is amped up and perfectly sharp to the point that it becomes robotic and you lose the human element. There’s something beautiful about an artisan quality versus an uber-slick look. Both have their place, but in this case we wanted to veer towards things that aren’t perfect... because that’s reality.”

The team also created a proprietary filter that draws out the Coke reds in a natural environment – from a city light or a car, to an earring or a baseball cap – with minimal manipulation.

“We didn’t want to submerge every shot in red for the sake of it, but when red was there – even if its presence was minor – we wanted it to be visible,” Sommerville said. “It’s almost like a chef adding ingredients or spices to dial up a specific flavor in a dish.”

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This vintage veneer complemented the retro locations and on-trend clothes and accessories hand-picked for the shoots and created a universally appealing dynamic.

“By bringing a slightly nostalgic feel to the images, we hope to subconsciously appeal to a much broader audience,” Sommerville concluded. “I’m not a Millennial, but I recognise something in these shots that evokes a Coca-Cola memory. I hope other people of all ages can also see memories.”