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Coca-Cola Brand Love, in the Flesh

By:  Mackensy Lunsford Jun 4, 2014
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Would you get a tattoo in homage of a favorite brand? Plenty of Coca-Cola lovers have done so, and they’re not alone.

Google "brand logo tattoos," and you'll see a world of permanent product placement — including, wait for it, "Google" tattoos.

Brand apparel and wall art, even custom vintage cars, are some of the other ways fans manifest their devotion. But what drives someone to indelibly pledge his or her allegiance to a product in the flesh?

More Than Skin Deep

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Asa Cargill’s tattoo of a limited-edition Coke bottle.

For Asa Cargill, who has a massive Coke bottle tattooed on his right arm, his connection to the company is more than skin deep. Cargill grew up in a family deeply devoted to the brand.

“Everything in my house growing up was Coca-Cola paraphernalia,” he says. “I was surrounded by soda fountain glasses, old advertisements, a Coca-Cola Santa on the house at Christmastime.”

Cargill was conceived in Elizabethtown, Kentucky, where his parents were in town showing off their custom Coca-Cola-emblazoned motorcycle at a convention timed for the opening of the Schmidt Museum of Coca-Cola. The couple named their son after Asa Candler, co-founder of Coca-Cola. “They wanted to strictly go Coca-Cola with my name,” says Cargill.

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Cargill's mom on her custom Coca-Cola motorcycle.

Cargill’s tattoo is of a limited-edition Coke bottle with Candler’s name on the label. “I remember being a kid and seeing that label,” says Cargill. “I’ve always been a guy who gets tattoos that mean something to me.”

“It was an interesting tattoo, and it had a lot of meaning,” says Pallis Rupinta, the artist at All Aces Tattoo in Orange Park, Fla., who created the tattoo for Cargill.

“All people have their reasoning for getting tattoos, whether it’s aesthetic or something meaningful,” Rupinta, 32, says. “Some are more meaningful than others. Some just get it because it’s beautiful. Nowadays, it’s about art and self-expression.”

Tattoos for Tacos

Some tattoo fans find ways to cash in on their self-expression. Some companies offer perks for permanent logos, ranging from free tacos to discounted grilled cheese sandwiches. Such devotion can backfire; even if tattoos are forever, restaurants rarely are.

Hot Doug’s Encased Meat Emporium has for years offered an endless supply of hot dogs to those willing to get a tattoo of the restaurant’s friendly-looking wiener mascot. It was easy to imagine this particular restaurant had staying power, too: Bon Appetit named Hot Dougs one of the 50 best restaurants on the planet.

When owner Doug Sohn recently announced the demise of his beloved eatery, it was likely his tattooed fans who felt the most-acute pangs of regret. When Sohn took to Twitter to break the news, those fans were on his mind. “My friends, we'll serve our last encased meats 10/3,” he wrote. “We thank you for your support & suggest you don’t get a Hot Doug's tattoo any time soon.”

In a country where more than 45 million are tattooed, there’s plenty of money to be made on regret. A Chicago clinic has decided to offer half-priced tattoo removal for those stuck with a useful-only-for-nostalgia Hot Doug’s tattoo.

Identifying with an Icon

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Photo credit: Devilz Tattooz

Coca-Cola offers no incentives for those with tattoos of its iconic logo. What drives people to connect so strongly with the brand and company varies, but the culture of Coca-Cola is no passing fad. “These are people that have self-identified with a brand they have fallen in love with, for whatever the reason,” says Ted Ryan, director of heritage communications, The Coca-Cola Company.

Since its creation in the late 19th century, Coca-Cola has seen numerous seismic cultural shifts, and the brand tends to represent something different from generation to generation.

“With an older generation, it could be a World War II memory of a soldier getting a Coke in a bottle overseas while fighting during the war,” Ryan says.

Early on in the war, then-general Eisenhower deemed Coca-Cola as a war necessity, Ryan says, and had 10 bottling plants established in North Africa. As the armies moved into Paris, the company built 64 more bottling plants close to the lines, so soldiers had easy access to Coca-Cola.

“More than 5 billion bottles of Coke were bottled across Europe by temporary bottling plants, staffed by 165 Coke associates," Ryan adds. When the war ended, the drink remained a symbol of friendship in the ensuing years of optimism. In the 15 years after the war, the number of countries bottling Coca-Cola doubled. “A generation came back from World War II, knowing that Coke had been there for them,” Ryan says.

A Unifying Concept

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Nostalgia may drive the Coca-Cola infatuation for many in the U.S., but in other parts of the world, Coca-Cola might represent cross-cultural friendship. That's why a Parisian Harley Davidson employee, a man who goes by the name of Tribal Alain, had a Coca-Cola bottle tattooed on his thigh.

Alain’s art depicts the classic glass Coke bottle, hoisted in-hand as if to offer a toast. The iconic symbol, says Alain, represents “friendship and sharing — a Coca-Cola for my friends in the world."

A common symbol can create a simple but powerful connection, even between those who might not typically agree with one another, something Coca-Cola illustrated in a powerful 2013 film featuring interactive "Small World Machines."

Ryan thinks a desire to share a piece of something so universally iconic is what drives people to get the Coca-Cola tattoos. “If they’re part of Coca-Cola, they’re a part of something that France is a part of, they’re a part of something that someone in the U.S. is a part of,” he says.

And they're a part of that forever. Jodie Goodwin, who owns Black Widow Custom Tattoo and Design in Newfoundland, recently tattooed a Coke bottle on a loyal client. "We both were equally excited to do the tattoo because we are hard-core fans (of Coca-Cola)," she says.

Goodwin says people who get tattoos aren't intimidated by the notion of forever.

“I think that’s the very reason why they get tattooed," she says. "It's a passion or piece of art that they are proud to wear the rest of their lives.