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.

Over 60 years ago a famous sign was turned on at Piccadilly Circus. It measured 44 feet square, 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. Which sign was it? Coca-Cola.

The current Coca-Cola sign, with state of the art technology, began 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”, and then the trademark “Coca-Cola” 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 in between the Every Ready Batteries and Guinness neon signs, while thousands of people and cars moved through the intersection. Often referred to as a “Spectacular Sign” these large signs appealed to the eye with their mass, colour and action and made for an exciting and unusual display.

But why Piccadilly Circus?

The area began as a link between Piccadilly and Regent Street and when the tube was opened at Piccadilly Circus in 1906, Perrier became the first advertiser in 1908.

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.

Photos: see how our iconic sign was made and constructed

The building and installation of the sign is chronicled in a photo album held in The Coca-Cola archives. Leather bound and simply titled, The Piccadilly Sign, the black and white images 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 the beauty of the sign, 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 were considering taking the sign down due to costs just 5 years after it was erected. In 1959, Delony Sledge, Coca-Cola’s advertising director, wrote a letter to Paul Austin, then Head of theExport 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 went on to write, “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 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.