London’s Piccadilly Circus has played host to the iconic Coca-Cola sign since 1955. Its latest display celebrates Coca-Cola’s 50-year relationship with Special Olympics. Find out about the partnership, as well as more about the sign’s history…

On 20 July 2018, major landmarks, stadiums and iconic buildings around the world were lit up a global display of unity, as part of the global Special Olympics 50th Anniversary celebrations. One of these landmarks was the Piccadilly Sign in Central London, familiar home to the iconic Coca-Cola logo.

The Special Olympics 50th anniversary video that was displayed on the Piccadilly sign

#LightUpForInclusion

This worldwide act of unity represents the dawn of the Inclusion Revolution – Special Olympics’ mission to end worldwide discrimination against people with intellectual disabilities and create more inclusive communities.

London Piccadilly sign

The Coca-Cola Company have been a longstanding supporter of Special Olympics, having been a Founding Partner in the US.

Closer to home, Coca-Cola Great Britain have been proud sponsors of Special Olympics GB since it was founded in the UK back in 1978 – that’s a 40-year partnership  still going strong.

To celebrate this ongoing relationship, we worked together to create the Piccadilly sign video to showcase and support some of our incredible Special Olympic GB athletes.

So what’s the history of the sign, and how did it come to be the home of the Coca-Cola logo? Coca-Cola archivist, Justine Fletcher, talks us through its origins….

How it all began

More than 60 years ago a famous sign was turned on at Piccadilly Circus. It measured 44 sq. ft, 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, 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”. The trademark “Coca-Cola” would then 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’s Gin, Army Club Cigarettes, Schweppes Tonic Water, and of course, Coca-Cola. More than 50 brands have advertised in Piccadilly Circus, with Coca-Cola the longest standing.

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 tell the story of the workers who made it from draft board to dramatic finished product.

Photos show sheet metal being cut, 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.” 
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 Delony Sledge, Coca-Cola’s Advertising Director

5 years later...

Despite the beauty of the sign, and the millions of tourists and passers-by who view it, at one time Coca-Cola executives questioned the advertising value versus its maintenance cost.

Several executives in the Export Corporation of Coca-Cola in New York were considering taking down the sign 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 championing 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 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 Piccadilly 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 illuminated landmarks around the world are turned off for one hour.

Find out more about WWF’s Earth Hour

In early 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 updating so they could be brought into the future.

Unveiled on 26 October 2017 after nine months of darkness, the updated sign boasts a new curved, ultra-high definition 4K resolution screen with 11,858,400 pixels and 281 trillion colours.

Bright lights, big brand

More than 60 years have passed since the original Coca-Cola sign was revealed in Piccadilly Circus. This new modern sign is again 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.