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.

Announcing: Ottawa Brand Strategy Boot Camp – August 27

Registration has just opened for the August edition of our successful Beg to DIFFER Brand Strategy Boot Camp – brought to you by the Ottawa Centre for Research and Innovation (OCRI) and Brandvelope Consulting.

Wide angle - brighter
Dennis fields questions at the last OCRI Beg to DIFFER Brand Strategy Bootcamp in May 2009.

generic Helvetica, information pills sans-serif; FONT-SIZE: +3″>Register here at the OCRI Web site.

This  boot camp is for all managers and executives with marketing, PR, or communication responsibility–whether in technology, government, not-for-profit, or other industries.  Basically, if you manage a brand and want to learn how to manage it for maximum connection and value (for your customers and for yourself) this boot camp is for you.


Thursday August 27, 2009


Nepean Sailing Club 3259 Carling Avenue

Two Options:

OPTION 1: Half-Day Bootcamp – morning only

  • 8:30 a.m. – 9:00 a.m. – Registration and Coffee
  • 9:00 a.m. – 12:00 p.m. – Seminar 

OPTION 2: Full-Day Bootcamp

  • Morning seminar (as above), plus:
  • 12:00 p.m. – 1:00 p.m. – Lunch
  • 1:00 p.m. – 4:30 p.m. – Hands-on Workshop

Why you should attend:

Reason 1: morning session

Dennis at front -square
Morning Session provides theory, practical case studies, & tips

This seminar provides a great overview of three important topic areas for all Brand Managers:

  • What is a brand, and why is it important? You’re being branded one way or the other; we’ll help you take control.
  • The building blocks of brands. How to analyze, develop, and leverage the different facets of corporate strategy to ensure that your brands are making the right promises, and following through.
  • Brand management. How to use the brand elements and marketing tools at your disposal to manage your image in the minds of consumers. How to be a brand stickler without being seen as a “brand cop”. How to get your colleagues to live the brand.
  • Reason 2: afternoon workshop (only for full-day participants)

    Afternoon workshop (available only to full-day bootcampers) is more interactive, and involves hands-on critique of your brand.

    In this smaller-group setting, you’ll get a chance to apply the theory from the morning to your brand and get help from other participants and the workshop leaders.  The workshop will allow you to do a point-by-point inspection all the aspects of your brand. But note that the afternoon is for active participants only; be ready to give and take constructive feedback.

    Reason 3: Take-aways

    All participants will receive 1) Beg to DIFFER Brand Strategy Workbook  plus, full-day participants will also get 2) a personalized assesment of your brand strengths and challenges.

    Reason 4: Beautiful setting

    Nepean Sailing club is at 3259 Carling Avenue, just West of Andrew Haydon Park – only a short drive from downtown and Kanata. This venue offers stunning scenery and a relaxed atmosphere – we took the photo below from just outside the conference room. It’s the perfect place to spend a late August day gearing your brand up for the fall. Google Map here.

    Back deck
    Boot Camp will be held at the beautiful Nepean Sailing Club - 3259 Carling Avenue on Lac Deschênes near Andrew Haydon Park

    Reason 5: don’t take our word for it

    “I thoroughly enjoyed the day and want to thank you and your colleagues for your efforts. I believe this seminar is a definite requirement in the Ottawa area and you have already put in place many of the cornerstones to build on to make this a truly awesome and interactive event for new and seasoned brand management professionals.”

    Dan Chaput
    Director, Marketing Communications
    March Networks

    Register here at the OCRI Web site.

    Government abbreviations in one word: NOMO!

    As an Ottawa naming and brand strategy consultant, order I once thought the technology industry was the world’s biggest offender in the realm of unhelpful abbreviations. But then I started working with the Canadian federal government…. alphabet soup everywhere. My answer in one word: NOMO!


    The problem with acronyms / abbreviations / initialisms / alphabet soup

    So there it was: “Governments MIA when it comes to good acronyms” – one of my biggest PPPs (Personal Pet Peeves) being addressed right on the front page of yesterday’s Ottawa Citizen. The article is a useful introduction to the importance of, doctor and hair-pulling frustration involved with, sick unhelpful abbreviations and insider short-hand in government.

    The article even shows awareness at the political level from the same party that once called itself CCRAP. But it doesn’t go far enough.

    As a taxpayer, I’ve had enough trouble navigating my way through the small range of government services I actually use. But as a consultant whose job it is to help fix brand communication problems, I’ve been right in the middle of the tangled thicket of jargon and shorthand.

    Client: Your CV is impressive: PMRA, TBS, PWGSC…
    Me: Great! so we can work together?
    Client: Maybe, but the DG and the ADM might RFP, so PMO, PCO, and TBS are Cc-ed. CRA, DND, and PHAC as well…
    Me: Uh, right.
    Client: So as an SME SP without SC…
    Me: I’m SOL?

    And that’s before we actually get to work. Once I do, my consulting task is usually to explain existing services and programs in plain language, as I’ve done with Public Works and Government Services Canada (TPSGC-PWGSC), Treasury Board Secretariat (TBS-SCT),  Health Canada Pest Management Regulatory Agency (PMRA-ARLA), and others. But I can’t do that until I’ve gone through the lengthy process of myself figuring out the thing I’m supposed to be explaining, (so the PMBB isn’t the same as the NMAO?) and then making sure that my clients can in turn understand and explain it in the simplest possible terms – without shorthand.

    At other times, I’ve actually had the joyous opportunity to name, or better yet un-name or re-name, a government entity. For example, a few years ago, I helped Industry Canada launch a new coast-to-coast service for business, which we called simply “Canada Business”. A boring name perhaps, but the intent couldn’t be plainer, and even better, doesn’t need to be abbreviated (“CanBiz” and “CB” were rejected early in the process).

    Why the terms don’t help

    But in trying to talk about this problem, the word “acronym” itself is one of the problems. So is“initialism”. So is “abbreviation”. I’ve tried sorting through this with a glossary at But I apologize if it’s still confusing.

    And to technically-minded bureaucrats, these words have such specific definitions, and are so widely abused, that the debate always gets gleefully sidetracked into the debate over which term applies to which unhelpful short-form. Is FINTRAC an initialism? Is PHAC an acronym? Should we name our new program CANPAPHTHPT?

    The average citizen says: “WTHC” (Who The Heck Cares)?

    My modest proposal:

    So I say we short-circuit the debate with one new word that describes the whole range of unwieldy shortenings:

    NOMONYM: (NOUN) any unhelpful short-form, nickname, abbreviation, acronym, initialism, jargon, or insider buzz-term.

    I created the word by (helpfully) abbreviating the phrase “NO More Obscure Nomenclature!” Although “NO-MOre-NYMs” works just as well.

    In common usage, I recommend that this term be further shortened to “NOMO” and shouted loudly at government seminars, workshops, and brainstorming sessions.

    Usage examples for “NOMO”:

    • Scenario 1: CRA needs a TTB from the WTH before you get an XYZ.
    • Response: all the people shout “NOMO!”
    • Scenario 2: government announces BPH moves RPHCAN to TLA.
    • Response: all the people shout “NOMO!”
    • Scenario 3: the DND/CF CEFCOM JTF-Afg and TFK BGen of ISAF, launches Operation ROOB, UNYIP, JANOOBI (I’m not making that up)
    • Response: all the people shout “NOMO!”

    Use NOMO as a noun, a verb, an adjective, whatever you like. But shout it loudly, so it is heard throughout government boardrooms, corridors, brainstorming sessions – anywhere a NOMO might rear its ugly head.

    And as the movement spreads, we go through the whole portfolio of government agencies, services, and terminology, weeding out NOMOs wherever we find them.

    Perhaps then government can do the one thing that citizens need most:


    The whole NOMO series: