Skip to comments.When Image Became Everything: The New Coke Fiasco At 25
Posted on 04/23/2010 12:44:37 PM PDT by qam1
Summer of 1985: Fidel Castro sits behind a transmitter and broadcasts a national radio address of monumental proportions: Cubas great American enemy to the north is in a state of decay. Though this statement came during the paranoid final years of the Cold War, Castros claim was not based on some clandestine CIA document smuggled by a double-agent. No, the proof of Americas decay, was that Coca-Cola tasted kind-of different.
A few months earlier, before an audience of 700 reporters seated in New Yorks Lincoln Center, Roberto C. Goizueta, Cokes president and CEO (and, fittingly enough, a Cuban ex-patriot) made his own national announcement: The best has been made even better. In non-PR lingo, Coca-Cola was changing its famous formula for the first time in nearly a century. New Coke, the notoriously ill-fated soft drink of the 1980s, (posthumously) turns 25 years old today.
Some may choose to call this the boldest single marketing move in the history of the packaged-goods business, said Goizueta at the press conference. We simply call it the surest move ever made.
Not sure enough. Goizueta was wrong. Like, very wrong. Like, New Coke has become a universal synonym for corporate f***-up wrong. Consumers not only rejected the taste of New Coke, they accused the Coca-Cola Company of no less than perverting an essential part of American culture. The public outrage that emerged has gone down as one of the great marketing blunders of the twentieth century.
And yet, while New Cokes most legacy may be that of a multi-million-dollar blunder, the discontinued drink is far more than a cautionary tale of corporate hubris. It is a symbol of the unique cultural landscape of the 1980s a time when Baby Boomers had jobs, kids, giant cell phones, and thirsts that, by God, needed quenching. A time when a Gilded-Age Atlanta soft drink like Coca-Cola struggled to stay relevant as MTV emerged and Wall Street redefined conservative America.
And what better way to stay relevant in the superficial 80s than a literal reinvention of your trademark brand? Just as the classic Coca-Cola, with its Norman Rockwell ads and Bible Belt origins, represented America, New Coke represented 80s America: flashy, new wave, quickly outdated, and brought to you by Bill Cosby:
The origins of New Coke trace back to the late 1970s, when Pepsi won a series of crucial victories in the Great American Cola Wars. The soft-drink competitor had already overtaken Coke on the supermarket front, and was advancing uncomfortably close toward Cokes #1 spot on the coveted fountain market. By 1985, the Coca-Cola Company had lost an entire percentage point of its market share. (A percent being equal to hundreds of millions in the billion-dollar soft-drink industry, this was, to quote our Vice President, a big f***** deal.)
Pepsis Cola War coup was partly due to the Pepsi Challenge, a 1975 ad campaign televising blind taste tests that pitted Coca-Cola against Pepsi. In the ads, random consumers were presented with two anonymous samples of the competing soft drinks. After ceremoniously tasting each sample, the consumers would be asked which letter they preferred. Theyd make their choice and, lo-and-behold, it was Pepsi! The Challenge statistically proved that Pepsi tasted better than Coca-Cola.
Of course, how scientific can any experiment that gives its participant free I TOOK THE PEPSI CHALLENGE! t-shirts be? The real advantage Pepsi had over Coke was entirely ideological. Pepsi was, by its own decree, the choice of a new generation. Pepsi was open to change (to this day it significantly alters its can design every few years). Coca-Cola, on the other hand, was an old-fashioned company run by Robert Woodruff, a 95-year-old southern aristocrat. The company was so resistant to change that it kept its secret formula literally locked in a vault.
Pepsi was the company that hired Michael Jackson as its spokesman. Coca-Cola was the company that passed on him as not patriotic enough. (As Coke historian Thomas Oliver noted, the King of Pops androgynous appearance didnt jibe with the companys image of the all-American boy.) Pepsi spoke to the Baby Boomers. Coke didnt trust them.
The problem for Coke was that, by 1985, the Pepsi-drinking Boomers were the ones with the money, while their Coke-drinking parents were stashing Social Security checks under mattresses in southern Florida. It was this Pepsi-guzzling environment that led sixteen Coca-Cola executives to a top-secret meeting at the McCann-Erickson advertising agency offices in New York. The members (only two of whom had any idea what the purpose of the gathering was) passed by a guard from the notorious Pinkerton Detective Agency and took their seats around an ominous circular table straight out of Dr. Strangelove. And, like Dr. Strangelove, an eccentric foreign scientist, the flavor chemist-turned Coke vice president Sergio Zyman, announced a shocking plan: Were replacing Coke with a new Coke.
In retrospect, Coca-Cola would have done better to keep New Coke (code name: Project Kansas, in honor of a Kansas newspapers description of Coca-Cola as the sublimated essence of all that America stands for) as under-wraps as it was in those early months. Within a week of New Cokes public announcement in April, Coca-Cola was receiving over a thousand phone calls a day from enraged consumers furious over the companys decision to remove Coke. By mid-June this number had risen to over 7,000.
Changing Coke is like breaking the American dream, wrote one angry Coke drinker. Monkeying with the recipe is akin to diddling with the U.S. Constitution, cried another. Other signs of consumer outrage: the attack of a Coke delivery driver by an elderly-yet-furious shopper in a southern grocery store, a retired Air Force officer requesting that his ashes be ceremoniously sealed in an old Coke can, and a Georgia minister asking his congregation to pray for the immortal soul of a local bottler who had damned himself to Hell by distributing the wicked brew that was New Coke.
This public outrage, as well as New Cokes disappointing sales, led Coca-Cola to announce on July 10, 1985, that old Coke would be returning to store shelves as Coca-Cola Classic. The original pullback plan was to keep New Coke as the companys flagship brand and have Classic be nothing more than an alternative. But sales of Coke Classic so overwhelmed those of New Coke. Coke Classic became Coca-Cola, and New Coke became Coke II. Coke II soon faded from grocery store shelves - save for one consumer: Coca-Cola CEO Roberto Goizueta, who drank the new formula long after its fall from grace, until his death in 1997.
The most famous legacy of New Coke is that of a silly corporate misstep, or a charmingly dated piece of 80s nostalgia on par with an episode of AfterMASH. But, with 25 years hindsight, those three months in 1985 w take on a much grander meaning. The product and (perhaps more importantly) its marketing, capture perfectly the pop-cultural climate of the Reagan Era, and how the nature of consumerism has changed in the 2.5 decades since that Era. In this way, New Coke is kind of like Mad Men with way worse clothes.
Six months after the Coke Classics return, America struggled to comprehend just what the Summer of New Coke meant. Donald Keough, head of Coca-Cola North America, appeared on the national morning news show Today. What Keough himself had to say is pretty unimportant (it was mostly public-relations stuff about the lasting magic of Coca-Cola, or some s*** like that). What IS relevant is what Jane Pauley, the Today anchor interviewing Keough, had to say. As she opened her Q-and-A, the journalist read with genuine amazement a quote from Coke USA president Bryon Dyson regarding New Coke. Dyson attributed the disconnect between the New Coke and its outraged public to the the intrinsic versus extrinsic nature of marketing:
Intrinsics means I buy the product because I like the way it tastes. Extrinsics is: I buy the product because I like the image. Its fun. Its friendly. Its American. Used to be, we bought the product primarily because of taste
A phenomenal shift! remarked Pauley, wide eyed. We now by soft drinks for the image. In 2010, of course, any jaded Generation Xer whos rented Reality Bites or read Fight Club enough times takes this fact (the superficial nature of marketing) as a given. And not even in a cynical, Kurt Cobainian way. One of todays most admired TV protagonists, Don Draper, makes a living perpetuating marketing superficiality as Sterling-Coopers creative director. Another great American Don D. (White Noises Delillo) makes an even better living examining that superficiality. The point is that, today, even the least engaged American takes it as a given that were, like, buying the image, dude. And yet here, in 1985, was a national news correspondent treating the idea of being influenced by commercials as the biggestexpose since Watergate.
This is the real legacy of New Coke. It didnt change the soft drink marketplace or spike Coca-Colas stock price the way the boys in Atlanta had hoped, but it was the beginning of our modern understanding of advertising. In his comprehensive history of Coca-Cola, For God, Country and Coca-Cola, published shortly after the 1980s (a/k/a the Decade of New Coke) had drawn to a close, Mark Pendergrast offered a pitch-perfect analysis of the unique American climate that led to Coca-Colas brief reformulation: The corporate blindness stemmed not so much from geography or cultural background as from the Eighties mentality, he wrote. Aggressive, ruthless, and cocky, the new team wanted to repeat the blockbuster breakthrough of old Coke. They didnt succeed, but what their unsuccessful attempt taught the nation is more important than any sweetened 12oz can of high-fructose corn syrup could have been.
I sure wish THAT was true.
I'd like to see a similar backlash of outrage about the Constitution.
Ping list for the discussion of the politics and social (and sometimes nostalgic) aspects that directly effects Generation Reagan / Generation-X (Those born from 1965-1981) including all the spending previous generations are doing that Gen-X and Y will end up paying for.
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Funny how they didn't appear in any commercials...
I have a carton of 6 original cokes in the king sized bottle. They will sell for a zillion $$$ one of these days
Somewhere in all of this should be a lesson for John McCain, Linsay Graham, and the rest of the RINOs.
I want diet vanilla Coke back.
I WANT DIET VANILLA COKE BACK.
Mandrake, have you never wondered why I drink only distilled water, or rain water, pure grain alcohol and Pepsi?
it did give us Max Headroom, who served as sort of the early prototype for the Obama campaign...
I have heard this theory floated about, that Coke did this to hide the fact they were replacing cane sugar with HFCS.
So the idea was to make New Coke so bad, that people would gladly accept “Classic” Coke with the HFCS.
So the idea was to make New Coke so bad, that people would gladly accept Classic Coke with the HFCS.
IMO that's exactly what it was all about. To this day, I believe HFCS Coke is mainly (if not only) sold in the US. If you want to taste some good Coke, get it from a Mexican grocery store - they sell the real stuff (and the Mexicans won't buy the HFCS crap).
pelosi New Coke, the Edsel of softdrinks.
I WANT MY LEMON FLAVORED JOLLY RANCHER CANDIES BACK!!!!!!!!!!!
I still had half a case of the original coke when the “Classic” came back.
The Coke Classic tasted different than the true original. They still diddled with the formula somehow and I still do not enjoy it as much.
I remember New Coke. It was horrible. But for the 80s, with the swish doubled in metallic silver and the bold block print lettering on the can it certainly got everyone’s attention. Until they tried it.
“Sweeter and flatter” is exactly how I’d describe Pepsi to Coke. To this day I will go out of my way to avoid Pepsi. In restaurants which serve Pepsi, I usually order iced tea or water.
LOL. That is about the best comparison I’ve seen in a long time!
During my time in Afghanistan all the soft drinks were from Dubai or Kuwait. Real sugar, will not dring the sludge they call soft drinks here anymore.
I will stick to beer.
On the other hand, you can still buy sugar Coca-Cola in the mexican stores.
There is also a Dr. Pepper bottling plant in Texas that still uses sugar.
True, although you can get the cane sugar coke during Passover from certain grocery stores. The 2-liter bottles I bought this year had a yellow cap which had some Hebrew lettering printed on the top.
Overall, it was very good. The sweetness was a little muted and seemed linger a bit. I think I’m used to the HFCS stuff though. When served in glass bottles, it takes the best in my opinion.
I have also heard that HFCS is used based on cost, as the USA has some sugar import tariffs in place to protect our producers.
Coke replaced sugar with corn syrup. That’s why they had New Coke.... Cocacola Classic uses corn syrup but you can still get Coke made with sugar. Some of the Mexican grocery stores carry it and it tastes great.
Me too. (sniff, sniff)
The problem with TCCC (The Coca-Cola Company) is that they move at the speed of snail. Pepsi on the other hand moves quickly to block challenges, offer new product, etc.
And I can say this as an alumn of TCCC (way back in the day).
Of course, you can also take these as the words of a guy justifying his handling of the worst product reboot in history.
The writer should probably invest in a dictionary. Or switch to broadcasting.
HFCS vs. sugar.
I know is wasn't a product re-boot, but Pepsi Clear sure didn't last long.
Pepsi sucks, Coke and Dr Pepper only for me. IF the place only serves pepsi products, I’ll get mountain dew.
You can also buy the Mexican Coke in cases at Costco.
“On the other hand, you can still buy sugar Coca-Cola in the mexican stores.
There is also a Dr. Pepper bottling plant in Texas that still uses sugar.”
....I just switched to Pepsi Throwbacks....they use real sugar...just like in the old days....my local c-store sells it in 12-packs
What always gets overlooked with New Coke is that New Coke beat “old” Coke in taste tests, which is the main reason that Coke rolled it out. Coke just didn’t expect the backlash that would come from changing what was considered a classic.
Can’t really fault Coke for consumers behaving irrationally. It’s hard to see that type of thing coming.
Yep, Coke Zero is much better than diet Coke.
Dr. Pepper regular and diet are great. So is Mug root beer.
I want diet lemon Coke back. The lime coke is just not the same.
“the surest move ever made”
The ads about Diet Dr Pepper being the closest to the regular sure are right. Actually pretty tasty. Diet Coke is a chemical sludge fest in comparison, nasty.
1 reason I don’t buy Coke these days - off the shelf: since c.1990 around here, it is seriously lacking in something like carbonation, evidenced either by no bubbles, or heavy tiny bubbles that head like root beer. People think I’m crazy until they taste our local Cokes vs. some other place that isn’t tainted. It’s a bit heavy on syrup, I guess. My cousin for 1, because his home region still has great Coke. I complained to Coke a few times when I noticed this problem suddenly back in college, but no help.
(I only buy Pepsi because my husband likes it.)
So, generally, I only buy Coke from a fountain - restaurants, etc. The bottling around here stinks.
As my dad said, a) did they always fix the order of tasting, and b) did they ever allow them time and water between?
maybe instead of “replacing” the classic Coca-Cola they should have introduced “New Coke” as an additional product line
I know, big obstacles to supporting both in the market place and in vending machines, soda machines etc. with a limited number of slots for product.....
I don’t think I ever tasted “New Coke” b/c I had no interest in cola drinks in the ‘80s.... although in recent years I do sometimes drink a cola and I DO prefer the taste of Coke to Pepsi! ha ..... but maybe I would like “New Coke” better still on a blind taste test.
Approximately when did HFCS replace sugar, then? If it was virtually the same time, then the conspiracy could have some validity. If it was significantly earlier, then not at all.
“Its hard to see that type of thing coming.”
No it’s not. It’s an institution and had been for 90 years.
All diet root beers aren’t that different from their baseline. At least, not the way regular soft drinks are.
I grew up with Pepsi(sorry. not Coke) and loved it. When I grew up I could not tolerate a full can without feeling very gaseous for days. A few months ago I tried the Throwback. I not only liked it better, but did not have the burpy feeling. Now I know it was the HFCS.
But that's ridiculous. Coke still existed, and people preferred the flavor of New Coke. As a company, I'm supposed to anticipate that people will revolt over a product that bears the same name and has a taste that more people prefer?
I get that people don't like change, but still. Here is essentially what people said: "I demand that you replace this better tasting product with one that tastes worse. Otherwise, I will stop buying your new, better tasting product."
I’ve heard this theory too, and I for one am inclined to believe it. About a year ago I was in Texas visiting a friend and he introduced me to “mexican coca-cola”. Apparently coke is able to use cane sugar in the product they manufacture down there. The difference was staggering. I was immediately transported to back to the age of six . . . or the last time I’d had a “real” coke. I’ve also read about coca-cola offering “kosher coke” for passover, and some other holidays, that is sweetened with sugar instead of corn syrup . . . but I’ve yet to see it offered in my area.
As I recall, there was some testing like that, but the question wasn’t quite so direct. Something like, “assume this is Coke. Would you buy it?”
Clearly a textbook marketing blunder in retrospect, but I think that the folks at Coke get skewered a little too much for a decision that made rational sense at the time. Coke invested a lot of money in testing the product and got good results. Weird thing happened when they went to market.
I’d read that before the release of new coke the drink contained a mixture of HFCS and sugar but when coke classic was rolled back out all of the sweetener was HFCS. Can’t account for the validity of that though . . . I don’t recall the source.
New Coke was a debacle no doubt but this passage is the same old lazy shorthand for the 80s.
We could use some aggression, ruthlessness and cockiness right now instead of the death-by-bureaucracy-and-taxes we are getting along with the embarrassing daily antics of the Scarecrow In Chief.