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“New Coke”: Success or Failure?

April 23, 2015 Archive Insight

Can of New Coke, THF 304647

Remember “New Coke”?  April 23, 2015 marks the 30th anniversary of its celebrated—and controversial—introduction. This soft drink lasted less than three months but its legacy lives on as a cautionary tale of marketing and branding. Was this attempted innovation a great marketing blunder or did it turn out to be a great marketing success? It depends on how you look at it.

On April 23, 1985, The Coca-Cola Company introduced “New Coke” as a replacement to the old Coke that had been around for almost 100 years. The sweeter, more syrupy taste of New Coke—based on the company’s Diet Coke formula but without the artificial sweeteners—was intended to compete successfully with Pepsi. Over the years, more and more people—especially young people—had come to prefer the taste of Pepsi over Coke. Now, in numerous blind taste tests among consumers, New Coke successfully beat out Pepsi time after time. Coca-Cola spent over four million dollars developing, testing, and marketing New Coke. The company was sure they had a winner on their hands.

 

Ad, New Coke, THF 122378

But New Coke was an utter failure. The public outcry to bring back old Coke began almost immediately—especially motivated by strong retaliation by Pepsi and negative press in general.  By July of 1985, The Coca-Cola Company could stand it no longer and feared for its future viability. Television news anchor Peter Jennings interrupted the afternoon soap opera General Hospital to deliver the happy news to the nation: old Coke—now renamed Coca-Cola Classic—was returning to the shelves. Great fanfare ensued.

As it turned out, The Coca-Cola Company’s public image actually improved after bringing back old Coke from what it had been before New Coke was introduced. This was partly because company spokespeople were able to turn it into their own media event, claiming that they were reintroducing the old formula because the company cared so much about its customers.  Although the company claimed that the return of Coca-Cola Classic accounted for a huge increase of sales by the end of that year, later studies suggested that it was the quiet rollout of Cherry Coke that did it. New Coke (renamed Coke II in 1992) sat side by side on the shelves with Coke Classic until 2002, but no one heard much about it anymore. The name Coca-Cola Classic was dropped in 2009 so as not to confuse younger generations who had never heard of the great “New Coke” controversy of the ‘80s.

So what was at the root of the “New Coke” disaster? Some people think that New Coke itself was not the problem. The problem was that the company did away with old Coke. Even though many people said they didn’t always drink it, the American public had a deep and abiding emotional attachment to the original Coca-Cola. Consumer research and blind taste tests just couldn’t measure up to that.

Donna Braden is Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford.

 

 

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