New Coke: 25 Years after Marketing Blunder of the Century

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new20coke20pic2[Video below.] It was 25 years ago today that life changed for millions of Americans, but there won’t be any ceremonies or parades to honor this occasion. On April 23, 1985, a beverage which had been enjoyed around the world for nearly a century was suddenly changed and what came to be known as “New Coke” was born.

It went on to be seen as perhaps the biggest marketing blunder of the 20th Century.

“They decided, for better or worse, to replace the old Coca Cola with a new formula and people went completely and utterly berzerk,” said Mark Pendergrast, the author of For God, Country & Coca-Cola: The Definitive History of the Great American Soft Drink and the Company that Makes It.

“It didn’t really matter whether the new Coke tasted better or not.”

“You would go to a store and people, if they knew you worked for Coke, would attack you verbally, said Phil Mooney, Archivist for the Coca Cola Company. “People were very passionate about it and it became very uncomfortable to be associated with the company at that time.

“There were protests in the streets, people would flood our telephone lines. We got thousands and thousands of letters from consumers demanding that we bring back the original formula,” Mooney said.

Pendergrast got a look at many of those letters while researching his book. He said one of the writers told Coke that ‘there are only two important things in (his) life, Coca Cola and God’ and then went on to complain that with the change to New Coke, the beverage company had ‘taken one of them away.’ Another said taking the original Coke away was like not selling hot dogs at a ball game.

Why Change in the First Place?

After years and years of dominating the market, Coke was losing ground to Pepsi. The “Pepsi Challenge,” an ad campaign which asked consumers to take a blind taste test of the rival brands, was consistently won by the sweeter tasting Pepsi.

Coca Cola panicked.

“The idea that their drink was not the superior drink was just anathema to them,” Pendergrast said.

So like the old saying goes, if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em, and Coke came up with a new, sweeter formula. Then the company performed an estimated $4 million in research and some taste tests of its own.

“Consumers were asked to give us a preference…and by overwhelming margins – seven, eight, nine to one – they told us that they preferred the new formulation,” Mooney said.

After some fine tuning, that new formulation hit the shelves. But as it turned out, people kind of liked Coke the way it was.

Or at least they thought they did.

“The problem with the research was that we didn’t ask one question,” Mooney said. “We didn’t ask how they would feel if we replaced X with Y.

“What we totally underestimated was the deep psychological feelings that people had for this brand, that this was a brand that had been a part of people’s lives for 99 years at the time.”

“What they hadn’t done in their focus groups was to talk to people and say we’re going to take away the old Coke,” Pendergrast added.

You Can’t Beat the Real Thing

Less than three months into New Coke’s run, Coca Cola gave in to the demands of the public and the original formula was brought back, renamed “Coca Cola Classic.”

The public rejoiced and in the end, what had seemed like a disaster for Coke was anything but.

“It turned out to be a brilliant move,” Pendergrast said. “When they finally gave in, Coca Cola market share had began to grow and surpass Pepsi.”

Coca Cola’s market share was at about 24 percent in 1983. Not long after Coca Cola Classic returned to store shelves, Coke’s market share had soared to about 39 percent versus 28 percent for Pepsi.

The rebound ended up stimulating a few conspiracy theories. One accused the Coca Cola Company of planning the New Coke ordeal to reignite a passion for their product.

Of course, Coca Cola denied it.

“We’re not that dumb and we’re not that smart,” then company president Don Keough said at the time.

It Hung Around

In 1990, New Coke was repackaged as “Coke II” and it wasn’t officially discontinued until 2002. The final nail in the New Coke coffin came in April 2007 when Coca Cola Classic went back to being known as just “Coca Cola.”

It was like New Coke never existed. At least for anyone born since the 90s.

Even though New Coke actually hasn’t been gone for as long as it might seem, it’s pretty much impossible to find. The rare sighting on Ebay might be the only exception.

“We have some packaging samples in the archive and that’s the only remnants of New Coke that are around today,” Mooney said.

He denies the validity of a Wikipedia entry that claims New Coke is available on some islands in the South Pacific.

A Return Engagement?

Now that the outrage over New Coke has long since died down, what better way to celebrate its silver anniversary than bringing it back for a while?

“I think we went through that experience, Mooney said with a laugh. “Consumers told us that was not a product that they wanted.”

Click below to view the 1980s New Coke Commercial:

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  1. Thank you Matzav for showing us a TELEVISION commercial. This is the new TORAH website of the 21st century (LOL)! We can now watch TV again.


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