New Coke 25 years later: was it all just a brilliant conspiracy?

Yesterday, in five more brand strategy lessons from the Princess Bride I used New Coke as an example of how customer research can occasionally lead branders astray. But thinking about it, two things struck me: First, that April 23, 2010 will be 25  years since the launch of New Coke.  Second, I turn forty tomorrow, so that spring day in 1985 was when my fifteen-year-old self realized for the first time:

Brand strategy isn’t a cold, abstract business decision made by far-away executives. It’s personal! THEY WERE MESSING WITH MY COKE!!

Ah the good old days - when a company could just change its brand without fear of consumer backlash...
Ah the good old days – when a company could just change its brand without fear of consumer backlash…

A brief history of New Coke

For those of you who were too young in 1985 to remember – or maybe you were bricked up into the walls of a desert hermitage during the 1980’s – and who can blame you really? – here’s a brief blow-by-blow of events around this seminal consumer branding event.

    • Pre-history to present – Coca-Cola launches, and retains market leadership, in the soft drink market. Fortunes are built on dark, bubbly sugar water.
    • 1975 – Pepsi launches the Pepsi Challenge – a campaign of blind taste tests in which consumers really did choose Pepsi over Coke for the most part.
    • 1975-1985 – Coke market dominance gradually slips – mostly under pressure from Pepsi. Coca-Cola executives realize that the threat is serious, and it seems to them that taste is a key battlefield.
    • Early 1985 – rumours circulate that Coca-Cola is testing a new formula. And indeed they are. Thousands of consumers choose the new sweeter flavour in blind taste tests like those used in the Pepsi Challenge. No one tests whether the taste actually influences the purchase decision when users are aware of the brand.
    • April 23 1985 – To great fanfare (followed by an enormous “thud”), chairman and chief executive officer Roberto Goizueta announces New Coke to the world as a better tasting alternative to the old Coke that was still dominating the world’s brandscape.
    • Supporting “the Cos”: In an act of selfless, heart-warming altruism, Bill Cosby brings his considerable charm to bear on the issue telling the world that he personally prefers the new taste.

    • April 23 1985 – Meanwhile in Ottawa Canada, a pencil-necked grade nine kid in a Hewey Lewis and the News concert t-shirt hears… the news. And although prior to this, he has only been an indifferent cola consumer, the news wallops him with an odd mixture of horror and deep personal indignation. At lunch, he and his friends talk in whispers and look to the sky for other signs of impending apocalypse.
    • The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation broadcasts this scathing critique of the move. Check out the footage of the press conference “tasting”, the video message to retailers, and the response from Pepsi in which they declare victory in the Cola wars and give employees a celebratory holiday.

  • May, June 1985 – Stories circulate in the press of wide-spread hoarding of Coca-cola. Anecdotes like this one (of many) from the Coca-Cola Heritage site give a sense of the real urgency and panic that many consumers felt.

When the new Coke came out, I borrowed my friend’s pick-up and went to a club store and bought three pallets of regular Coke. It took two trips to get the Coke home. I had enough Coke to last me through the crisis, but I had to repair the floor in my spare bedroom – because of all the weight, the floor had sunk. It was well worth it.

  • Petitions are circulated, rallies are held, activist groups like the “Society for the Preservation of the Real Thing” and “Old Cola Drinkers of America” are formed, and Coca-Cola is swamped with angry response:

By June 1985, The Coca-Cola Company was getting 1,500 calls a day on its consumer hotline, compared with 400 a day before the taste change. People seemed to hold any Coca-Cola employee – from security officers at our headquarters building to their neighbors who worked for Coke – personally responsible for the change.

  • July 11, 1985 – Coca-Cola announces that they will be offering the old formula in parallel with the New Coke – which they call “Coca-Cola Classic”. There is widespread rejoicing.
    In the decades that followed of course, New Coke became Coke II and then quietly disappeared as “Coca-Cola Classic” became the name for standard Coke again.
  • 2007 – In Canada, the “Classic” was quietly dropped, but it remains on American packaging – albeit in smaller and smaller letters.

Brilliant conspiracy or colossal blunder?

But along the way home from their corporate Waterloo, a strange thing happened: Coca-Cola actually accomplished what they had set out to do in the first place: “to re-energize its Coca-Cola brand and the cola category in its largest market, the United States.” Coke sales surged, consumers breathed a collective sigh of relief, and Pepsi resigned itself to a seemingly permanent runner-up position in cola sales.

So of course, many conspiracy theorists have emerged claiming that Coca-Cola had planned this all along. But as they publically say on their Web site: “The company didn’t set out to create the firestorm of consumer protest that ensued”. Of course, they do try to put a positive spin on this bottle (with a little kiss of revisionism at the end):

The return of original formula Coca-Cola on July 11, 1985, put the cap on 79 days that revolutionized the soft-drink industry, transformed The Coca-Cola Company and stands today as testimony to the power of taking intelligent risks, even when they don’t quite work as intended.
(emphasis mine)

So here’s the real thing

That phrase “taking intelligent risks” doesn’t capture the enormous arrogance, ignorance, and shocking naïveté that went into the decision in the first place – and doesn’t capture the huge embarrassment and sense of crisis within the Coca-Cola company, or the tsunami of indignation that swept consumer society at large.

To sum up: New Coke made the corporation look really, really dumb. (But we forgave the brand).

Their big mistake (and it was a mistake): they treated the launch of a new formula as a problem that could be solved with product research, business logic, and a big ad campaign. In other words, they acted as if they had the right as a company to make such decisions, and we the customers would obviously be grateful.

The huge branding truth that became clear to this pencil-necked Hewey Lewis Fan:

Coca-Cola didn’t own their brand; I did.

Lessons for branders:

1)  Respect the owners of your brand – your customers.

Yes, you own your “formula”, but they own the expectations and experiences built up over time – which are ultimately far more important than your brilliant launch  plan. 

2) Freedom’s just another word for everything to lose.

Coca Cola didn’t win because of New Coke, they won in spite of it – and because they were smart about getting out of it. For 99.9% of brands, a misadventure like this would be fatal.