London’s Piccadilly Circus has hosted the iconic Coca-Cola sign since 1955. Archivist Justine Fletcher tells the story behind the sign, why it was almost taken down and its new look for 2017.

More than 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, started life 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 spiralled 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."
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Delony Sledge, Coca-Cola’s Advertising Director

That sign, with its 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 size, colour and action and made for an exciting and unusual display.

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 by displays 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 within it 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.

“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.” - Delony Sledge, Coca-Cola’s Advertising Director

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 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 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.”

Present day and beyond

The sign has been switched off on only a few occasions during peacetime: at the deaths of Princess Diana and Winston Churchill; and to raise awareness of climate change in partnership with WWF’s Earth Hour – where landmarks around the world are turned off for one hour.

Find out more about WWF’s Earth Hour

Earlier in 2017 the sign was switched off for the longest time since the Second World War. But thankfully not because of the death of a national treasure. The whole patchwork of screens in Piccadilly Circus needed updated so they could be brought into the future with a new curved, ultra-high definition 4K resolution screen, which will be unveiled in Autumn 2017.

Bright lights, big brand

More than 60 years have passed since the original Coca-Cola sign was originally revealed in Piccadilly Circus. This new modern sign will soon again be lighting up the sky at the crossroads of one of the most famous advertising spots in the world. And it’s safe to say that it’s far from ordinary, Mr. Sledge.

Find out how Coca-Cola first found its way into British soda fountains in 1900.