They say you cannot progress without change, but that lesson doesn’t necessarily apply to products, especially if you’re in the drinks industry.
On 23 April 1985, Coca-Cola learned this the hard way when it committed what it admits was one of “the most memorable marketing blunders ever” when it launched a product known as the “New Coke”.
The infamous error, which is still remembered 35 years later as a spectacular failure, saw the formula of what was and is still the most popular drink in the world changed for the first time in 99 years.
You are thinking, “why did they ever change it”. One word, “Pepsi”.
“In 1985, The Coca-Cola Company’s led the market in soft drinks but its hold on the market was on a decline,” Two years before the release of New Coke, Pepsi had struck a deal with Michael Jackson for a $5m partnership. In 1984, likely due to the success of Jackson’s commercials, Pepsi reported $7.7bn in sales and an increase in market share, while Coca-Cola’s dropped. So they clearly felt that they had to up their game.
In an effort to revive its position in the cola market, Coca-Cola decided to make a sweeter version of its beloved soda, which, according to 200,000 consumers who conducted taste tests at the time, was actually preferable.
But, what Coke failed to realise was “the bond consumers felt with their Coca-Cola,” Whether it was the sheer fact that they wanted the old flavour or that the new flavour was too sweet, the release of New Coke was met with widespread outrage across the United States.
“Calls flooded in Coca-Cola offices across the United States,” the company recalls. “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.
One customers took their disapproval even further. One man, Gay Mullins, reportedly went as far as spending $30,000 of his own money and three weeks of his time attempting to force Coca-Cola to bring back its original recipe. Just think how many of the original cokes he could have brought with that money.
According to Mullins, the issue was not just the new taste, but that the company had done something “un-American” – taken away his “freedom of choice”.
“How can they do this? They were guarding a sacred trust!” he told a reporter for People at the time. “Coca-Cola has tied this drink to the very fabric of America – apple pie, baseball, the Statue of Liberty. And now they replace it with a new formula, and they tell us just to forget it.
“They have taken away my freedom of choice. It’s un-American!”
Others, according to Coca-Cola, hoarded bottles of the original, with one consumer from San Antonio, Texas, purchasing $1,000 worth of Coke from a local bottler.
On 11 July 1985, once the extent of the soda brand’s mistake had become evident, Coca-Cola relaunched the original recipe, rebranded as Coca-Cola Classic.
According to the beverage corporation, the news of the drink’s long-awaited return “made the front page of virtually every major newspaper”.
Despite the undeniable failure that was New Coke, the Coca-Cola Company prefers to view the 79-day blunder as “testimony to the power of taking intelligent risks, even when they don’t quite work as intended”.
New Coke was eventually removed from shelves altogether in the US. However, for those curious to taste the drink that made the brand risk it all, it is possible to purchase New coke online.
So even the big “successful” companies get it wrong but the possibility of failure should never stop you moving forward.