As Coca-Cola turns 130 this year, archivist Justine Fletcher tells the story behind the brand’s iconic sign at Piccadilly Circus, and how it’s been lighting up the streets of London for more than 60 years.
More than 60 years ago, the famous Coca-Cola sign turned on at Piccadilly Circus. It stood 44 feet tall and stretched 44 feet wide, had nearly a mile of neon, and weighed 5,000 pounds. Built by British company, Claude-General Neon Lights, Ltd., and placed in the most iconic area of London, Piccadilly Circus, the sign found a home among other neon signs of the times.
The current Coca-Cola sign features state-of-the-art technology. It started in 1954 as a simpler version with a 17- second timing sequence spelling out “Have a Coke”, followed by yellow, double-outline tubes showcasing the words, “Delicious” and “Refreshing”. Finally, the Coca-Cola trademark would appear as the lights spiraled around in a circle.
"I would not, by any far away stretch of the imagination, do away with the Piccadilly Circus sign. I am sure it has added to the extraordinary quality of Coca-Cola all over the world."
That sign with the clean design and powerful message sat between the Every Ready Batteries and Guinness neon signs, while thousands of people and cars moved through the busy intersection. Often referred to as a “Spectacular Sign” these large signs appealed to the eye with their mass, color and action, and made for an exciting and unusual display.
Why Piccadilly Circus?
The area began as a link between Piccadilly and Regent Street. The tube opened at Piccadilly Circus in 1906, and Perrier became the first advertiser two years later.
Many other signs soon appeared, and visitors were awed with signs from Wrigley’s Chewing Gum, Gordon Gin, Army Club Cigarettes, Schweppes Tonic Water and, of course, Coca-Cola. More than 50 brands have advertised in Piccadilly Circus, with Coca-Cola being in Piccadilly the longest of any advertiser.
The building and installation of the sign is chronicled in a leather-bound photo album in the Coca-Cola archives. The black-and-white images inside document the workers who made the sign from draft board to finished product.
Photos show sheet metal being cut with machines, workers painting the metal and installing the neon tubing. On site, scaffolding rose into the air as workers installed the sign in large sections until the final piece was placed and the sign was lit.
Five Years Later...
Despite its beauty, and the millions of tourists and passersby who viewed it, at one time Coca-Cola executives questioned the advertising value versus the cost of maintaining the sign.
Several executives in the Export Corporation of Coca-Cola in New York considered taking the sign down due to costs just five years after it was erected. In 1959, Delony Sledge, Coca-Cola’s advertising director, wrote a letter to Paul Austin, then head of the Export Corporation, strongly stating the value of the sign.
Sledge wrote, “I would not, by any far away stretch of the imagination, do away with the Piccadilly Circus sign. I am sure it has added to the extraordinary quality of Coca-Cola all over the world… It is the type of extraordinary thing which competition has found difficult to match. It is costly, of course, but it is worth the money.”
He continued, “If we, in presenting Coca-Cola to our consumers, are content to do ordinary things, in an ordinary way, we must of necessity be content to become and remain, an ordinary product.”
Sixty years have since passed, and a Coca-Cola sign still lights up the night at Piccadilly Circus. At the crossroads of one of the most famous advertising spots in the world, it’s easy to say, it is far from ordinary, Mr. Sledge.
Find out how Coca-Cola first found its way into British soda fountains in 1900.