|Manufacturer||The Coca-Cola Company|
|Country of origin||USA|
|Introduced||April 23, 1985|
|Related products||Crystal Pepsi|
"New Coke" is the unofficial name of the reformulation introduced in 1985 by The Coca-Cola Company to replace the original formula of its flagship soft drink, Coca-Cola (a.k.a. Coke). Properly speaking, New Coke had no separate name of its own, but was simply known as "the new taste of Coca-Cola" until 1992 when it was renamed Coca-Cola II.
The American public's reaction to the change was poor, and the new cola was a major marketing failure. The subsequent reintroduction of Coke's original formula, re-branded as "Coca-Cola Classic", resulted in a significant gain in sales, leading to speculation that the introduction of the New Coke formula was just a marketing ploy.
A Caffeine Free New Coca-Cola version was also introduced at the same time. It was replaced by Caffeine Free Coca-Cola classic in 1990, which was the original 1983-1985 Caffeine Free Coca-Cola formula.
Just after World War II, the market share for the Coca-Cola Company's flagship beverage was 60%, and in 1983 it had shrunk to under 24% in the face of competition from Pepsi-Cola. Pepsi had begun to outsell Coke in supermarkets; Coke maintained its edge only through soda vending machines and fast food restaurants.
Market analysts believed baby boomers were likely to purchase more diet drinks as they aged and remained health- and weight-conscious. Therefore, any future growth in the full-calorie segment had to come from younger drinkers, who at that time favored Pepsi and its sweetness by even more overwhelming margins than the market as a whole.
Coca-Cola's most senior executives commissioned a secret effort named "Project Kansas," headed by marketing vice president Sergio Zyman and Brian Dyson, president of Coca-Cola USA, to test and perfect the new flavor for Coke itself. It took its name from a famous photo of that state's renowned journalist William Allen White drinking a Coke that had been used extensively in its advertising and hung on several executives' walls. The company's marketing department again went out into the field, this time armed with samples of the possible new drink for taste tests, focus groups, and surveys.
The results of that were strong — the high fructose corn syrup mixture overwhelmingly beat both regular Coke and Pepsi. Then tasters were asked if they would buy and drink it if it were Coca-Cola. Most said yes, they would, although it would take some getting used to. A small minority, about 10-12%, felt angry and alienated at the very thought, saying that they might stop drinking Coke altogether. Their presence in focus groups tended to skew results in a more negative direction as they exerted indirect peer pressure on other participants.
The surveys, which were given more significance by standard marketing procedures of the era, were less negative and were key in convincing management to move forward with a change in the formula for 1985, to coincide with the drink's centenary. But the focus groups had provided a clue as to how the change would play out in a public context, a data point that the company downplayed but which was to prove important later.
Management also considered, but quickly rejected, an idea to simply make and sell the new flavor as yet another Coke variety. The company's bottlers were already complaining about absorbing other recent additions into the product line in the wake of Diet Coke. Many of them had sued over the company's syrup pricing policies. A new variety of Coke in competition with the main variety could, if successful, also dilute Coke’s existing sales and increase the proportion of Pepsi drinkers relative to Coke drinkers.
Early in his career with Coca-Cola, Goizueta had been in charge of the company's Bahamian subsidiary. In that capacity, he had improved sales by tweaking the drink's flavor slightly, so he was receptive to the idea that changes to the taste of Coke could lead to increased profits. He believed it would be "New Coke or no Coke", and the change must take place openly. He insisted that the containers carry the "NEW!" label, which gave the drink its popular name.
Goizueta also made a visit to his mentor and predecessor as the company's chief executive, the ailing Robert W. Woodruff, who had built Coke into an international brand following World War II. He claimed he had secured Woodruff's blessing for the reformulation, but even many of Goizueta's closest friends within the company doubt that Woodruff truly understood what Goizueta intended. Goizueta always said he had.
Many of New Coke's problems developed during the rollout. Archrival Pepsi was able to undermine the public relations push, and Coke's own executives, particularly Goizueta, did not impress the media.
Coke let the media know on April 19, 1985 that a major announcement was planned for the following Tuesday, April 23, concerning a change in the product. While its press release did not explicitly say so, many recipients correctly guessed it meant a change in the flagship brand's formulation. So, too, did officials at PepsiCo, who had expected a major move but not something so drastic.
Despite a negative reaction by top Pepsi executives to a smuggled preview six-pack of the new flavor, they nevertheless concluded it was a serious threat. Roger Enrico, then director of North American operations, wasted no time taunting Pepsi's older rival. He declared a companywide holiday and took out a full-page ad in The New York Times proclaiming that Pepsi had won the long-running "cola wars". Since Coke officials were preoccupied over the weekend with preparations for the big day, their Pepsi counterparts had time to cultivate skepticism among reporters, sounding themes that would later come into play in the public discourse over the changed drink.
The next day Pepsi gave every employee the day off in celebration of their "victory" over Coca-Cola, claiming their successful brand forced the drastic change for Coca-Cola.
New Coke was introduced on April 23, 1985. Production of the original formulation ended that same week.
The press conference at New York City's Lincoln Center to introduce the new formula did not go over very well. Reporters present had already been fed questions by Pepsi, which was extremely worried that New Coke would erase all its gains. Also, Goizueta's description of the new taste, given his background as one of the company's flavor chemists, was less than impressive:
|“||[It's] smoother, uh, uh, yet, uh, rounder yet, uh, bolder ... it has a more harmonious flavor.||”|
Goizueta defended the change by pointing out that the drink's secret formula was not sacrosanct and inviolable. (As far back as 1935, Coca-Cola sought kosher certification from an Atlanta Rabbi, and made two changes to the formula so that the drink could be certified kosher [and, incidentally, Halal and vegetarian] and also Kosher For Passover.)
But Goizueta also refused to admit that taste tests had in any way led the company to make the change (which he called "one of the easiest decisions we have ever made") to avoid giving Pepsi any credit, yet gave no other real reason for the change, further alienating reporters who had already heard from Pepsi representatives in advance on this very issue. A reporter asked whether Diet Coke would also be reformulated "assuming this is a success," Goizueta curtly replied, "No. And I didn't assume that this is a success. This is a success".
The emphasis on the sweeter taste of the new flavor also ran contrary to previous Coke advertising, in which spokesman Bill Cosby had touted its less-sweet taste as a reason to prefer Coke over Pepsi.
While it is widely believed today that the new drink failed almost instantly, this was not the case. The company, as it had planned, introduced the new formula with big marketing pushes in New York (workers renovating the Statue of Liberty were symbolically the first Americans given cans to take home) and Washington, D.C. (where thousands of free cans were given away in Lafayette Park). Sales figures from those cities, and other regions where it had been introduced, showed a reaction that went as the market research had predicted. In fact, Coke's sales were up 8% over the same period the year before.
Most Coke drinkers resumed buying the new drink at much the same level as they had the old one. Surveys indicated, in fact, that a majority liked the new flavoring. Three-quarters of the respondents said they would buy New Coke again. The big test, however, remained in the Southeast, where Coke was first bottled and tasted.
Despite New Coke's acceptance with a large number of Coca-Cola drinkers, a vocal minority of them resented the change in formula and were not shy about making that known — again just as had happened in the focus groups.
Many of these drinkers were Southerners, some of whom considered the drink a fundamental part of regional identity. They viewed the company's decision to change the formula through the prism of the Civil War, as another surrender to the "Yankees". Company headquarters in Atlanta started receiving angry letters expressing deep disappointment and anger at executives. Over 400,000 calls and letters were received by the company. A psychiatrist Coke hired to listen in on phone calls to the company hotline, 1-800-GET-COKE, told executives some people sounded as if they were discussing the death of a family member.
They were, nonetheless, joined by some voices from outside the region. Chicago Tribune columnist Bob Greene wrote some widely reprinted pieces ridiculing the new flavor and damning Coke's executives for having changed it. Talk show hosts and comedians made light of the switch. Ads for New Coke were booed heavily when they appeared on the scoreboard at the Houston Astrodome. Even Fidel Castro, a longtime Coke drinker, contributed to the backlash, calling New Coke a sign of American capitalist decadence. Goizueta's own father expressed similar misgivings towards his son; the only time the younger man recalled him ever agreeing with Castro, the man whose revolution had driven him and his son, nearly penniless, to America a quarter-century before.
Pepsi took advantage of the situation, running ads in which a first-time Pepsi drinker exclaimed "Now I know why Coke did it!" However, Pepsi actually gained very few converts over Coke's switch, despite claiming a 14% sales increase over the same month the previous year, the largest sales growth in the company's history. The most alienated customers simply refused to buy New Coke rather than switch to Pepsi. Coca-Cola's director of corporate communications, Carlton Curtis, realized over time that they were more upset about the withdrawal of the old formula than the taste of the new one.
Gay Mullins, a Seattle retiree looking to start a public relations firm with $120,000 of borrowed money, formed the organization Old Cola Drinkers of America on May 28 to lobby Coca-Cola to either reintroduce the old formula or sell it to someone else. His organization eventually received over 60,000 phone calls. He also filed a class action lawsuit against the company (which was quickly dismissed by a judge who said he preferred the taste of Pepsi), while nevertheless expressing interest in landing Coca-Cola Company as a client of his new firm should it reintroduce the old formula. In two informal blind taste tests, Mullins either failed to distinguish New Coke from old or expressed a preference for New Coke.
Still, despite ongoing resistance in the South, New Coke continued to do well in the rest of the country. But executives were uncertain of how international markets would react. Sergio Zyman, the company's chief marketing officer, heard doubts and skepticism from his relatives in Mexico, where New Coke was slated to be introduced later that summer, when he went there on vacation.
Goizueta publicly voiced a complaint many company executives had been making in private as they shared letters the company had received thanking them for the change in formula, that bashing it had become "chic" and that, as had happened in the focus groups, peer pressure was keeping those who liked it from speaking up in its favor as vociferously as its critics were against it. Donald Keough, the company's president and chief operating officer, reported overhearing this exchange at his country club outside Atlanta:
"Have you tried it?"
"Did you like it?"
"Yes, but I'll be damned if I'll let Coca-Cola know that."
Some Coca-Cola executives had quietly been arguing for a reintroduction of the old formula as early as May. By June, when soft drink sales usually start to rise, the numbers showed the new formula was leveling among consumers. Executives feared social peer pressure was now affecting their bottom line. Some consumers began trying to obtain old Coke from overseas, where the new formula had not yet been introduced, as domestic stocks of the old drink were finally liquidated. Over the course of the month, Coca-Cola's chemists also quietly reduced the acidity level of the new drink, hoping to assuage complaints about the flavor and allow its sweetness to be better perceived (ads pointing to this change were prepared, but never used).
In addition to the noisier public protests, boycotts and bottles being emptied into the streets of southern cities, the company had more serious reasons to be concerned. Its bottlers, and not just the ones still suing the company over syrup pricing policies, were expressing concern. While they had given Goizueta a standing ovation when he announced the change at an April 22 bottlers' meeting at Atlanta's Woodruff Arts Center, glad the company had finally taken some initiative in the face of Pepsi's advances, they were less enthusiastic about the taste. Most of them saw great difficulty having to promote and sell a drink that had long been marketed as "The Real Thing", constant and unchanging, now that it had been changed.
The twenty bottlers still suing Coca-Cola had even more sport with the change in their legal arguments. Coca-Cola had argued in its defense when the suit was originally filed that the formula's uniqueness and difference from Diet Coke justified different pricing policies from the latter - but if the new formula was simply an HFCS-sweetened Diet Coke, Coca-Cola could not argue the formula was unique. Bottlers, particularly in the South, were also tired of facing personal opprobrium over the change. Many reported that some acquaintances had stopped speaking to them, or had expressed displeasure in other emotionally hurtful ways. On June 23, several of the bottlers took these complaints to Coca-Cola executives in a private meeting. With the company now fearing boycotts not only from its consumers but its bottlers, talks about reintroducing the old formula moved from "if" to "when".
Coca-Cola executives announced the return of the original formula on July 10, less than three months after New Coke's introduction. ABC News' Peter Jennings interrupted regular programming to share the news with viewers. On the floor of the U.S. Senate, David Pryor called the reintroduction "a meaningful moment in U.S. history".
The new product continued to be sold and retained the name Coca-Cola (until 1992, when it was officially renamed Coca-Cola II), so the old product was named Coca-Cola Classic, more commonly Coke Classic and later just Coke. Many who tasted the reintroduced formula were not convinced that the first batches really were the same formula that had supposedly been retired that spring. This is partially true because Coca-Cola Classic differed from the original formula, as all bottlers who hadn't already done so were using high fructose corn syrup instead of cane sugar to sweeten the drink.
"There is a twist to this story which will please every humanist and will probably keep Harvard professors puzzled for years," said Keough at a press conference. "The simple fact is that all the time and money and skill poured into consumer research on the new Coca-Cola could not measure or reveal the deep and abiding emotional attachment to original Coca-Cola felt by so many people."
The company gave Gay Mullins the first case of Coke Classic.
By the end of the year, Coke Classic was substantially outselling both New Coke and Pepsi, putting the company back into the number-one position it has enjoyed ever since. Six months after the rollout, Coke's sales had increased at more than twice the rate of Pepsi's.
New Coke's sales dwindled to a three percent share of the market, although it was doing quite well in Los Angeles and some other key markets. Later research, however, suggested that it was not the reintroduction of Classic Coke, but instead the less-heralded rollout of Cherry Coke, that can be credited with the company's success that year.
Coke spent a considerable amount of time trying to figure out where it had made a mistake, ultimately concluding that it had underestimated the public impact of the portion of the customer base that would be alienated by the switch. This would not emerge for several years afterward, however, and in the meantime the public simply concluded that the company had, as Keough suggested, failed to consider the public's attachment to the idea of what Coke's old formula represented. While that has become conventional wisdom in the ensuing years, some analyses have suggested otherwise.
This populist version of the story served Coke's interests, however, as the whole episode did more to position and define Coca-Cola as a brand embodying values distinct from Pepsi than any deliberate effort to do so probably could have done. Allowing itself to be portrayed as a somewhat clueless large corporation forced to back off a big change by overwhelming public pressure flattered customers (as Keough put it, "We love any retreat which has us rushing toward our best customers with the product they love the most."). Bottles and cans continued to bear the "Coca-Cola Classic" title until 2009 when the company announced that it would discontinue the use of "Classic" to avoid confusion with the younger generation.
While in the short term the fiasco led Cosby to end his advertising for Coke, saying his commercials that praised the superiority of the new formula had hurt his credibility, no one at Coca-Cola was fired or otherwise held responsible for what is still widely perceived as a misstep, for the simple reason that it ultimately wasn't (in contrast with Schlitz beer's disastrous change to a cheaper formula in the early 1970s, which was also based on market research into product taste yet unquestionably detrimental to the company in the long term). When Goizueta died in 1997, the company's share price was at a level well above what it was when he had taken over 16 years earlier and its position as market leader even more firmly established. At the time Roger Enrico, then head of Pepsi's American operations, likened New Coke to the Edsel. Later, when he was himself PepsiCo's CEO, he modified his assessment of the situation, saying that had people been fired or demoted over New Coke, it would have sent a message that risk-taking was strongly discouraged at the company.
In the late 1990s, Zyman summed up the New Coke experience thus:
Yes, it infuriated the public, cost a ton of money and lasted only 77 days before we reintroduced Coca-Cola Classic. Still, New Coke was a success because it revitalized the brand and reattached the public to Coke.
New Coke continued to do what it had originally been designed to do: win taste tests. In 1987, The Wall Street Journal surveyed 100 randomly selected cola drinkers, the majority of whom indicated a preference for Pepsi, with Classic Coke accounting for all save two New Coke loyalists. Given a chance to try all three in a blind test, New Coke slightly edged out Pepsi - yet many drinkers reacted angrily to finding they had chosen a brand other than their favorite.
Goizueta never once regretted the decision, even throwing an anniversary party for New Coke in 1995, and continued to drink it until his own death.
In the short run, the reintroduction of old Coke saved Coke's sales numbers and brought it back in the good graces of many customers and bottlers. Phone calls and letters to the company were as joyful and thankful as they had been angry and depressed ("You would have thought we'd cured cancer", said one executive.).
But confusion reigned at the company's marketing department, which had to come up with a plan to market two Cokes where such plans had been completely off the table mere months before. Classic Coke did not need much help, with a "Red, White and You" campaign showcasing the American virtues many of those who had clamored for its reintroduction had pointedly reminded the company it embodied. But the company was at a loss to sell what was now just Coke. "The Best Just Got Better" could no longer be used. Marketers fumbled for a strategy for the rest of the year. Matters were not helped when McDonald's announced shortly after the reintroduction that it was switching over to Classic Coke at every store across the country.
At the beginning of 1986, however, Coke's marketing team found a strategy by returning to their original motives for changing the drink: the youth market so beholden to Pepsi. Max Headroom, the purportedly computer-generated British media personality played by Matt Frewer, was chosen to replace Cosby as the spokesman (of sorts) for Coke's new "Catch the Wave" campaign. A very stylish figure in his jacket and sunglasses, he was already known to much of the U.S. youth audience through appearances on MTV, where he had first appeared in the Art of Noise's "Paranoimia" video, and Cinemax. The campaign was launched with a memorable television commercial, produced by McCann-Erickson New York, with Max saying in his trademark stutter, "C-c-c-catch the wave!" and referring to his fellow "Cokeologists". In a riposte to Pepsi's televisual teasings, one showed Headroom asking a Pepsi can he was "interviewing" how it felt about more drinkers preferring the new Coke to it and then cut to the condensation forming on the can. "S-s-s-s-sweating?" he asked.
It was a huge success, and surveys likewise showed that more than three-quarters of the target market were aware of the ads within two days. Coke's corporate hotline received more calls about Max than any previous spokesperson, some even asking if he had a girlfriend. The ads and campaign continued throughout the year and were chosen as best of 1986 by Video Storyboard of New York.
However, some stutterers and advocates for them complained that the ads were insulting. Some viewers found them annoying, and ultimately Coke itself found that some viewers thought they were Pepsi ads.
In 1985, New Coke was sold only in Canada, the United States, and United States territories, while the original formula continued to be sold in the rest of the world (had the new version been a success it would presumably have been introduced worldwide). New Coke was eventually returned to the company's product portfolio; it was test-marketed in certain U.S. cities under the name Coke II in 1990 and officially renamed Coke II in 1992. So, having determined not to make it a second brand, the company ultimately did exactly that.
However, Coca-Cola did little to promote or otherwise distinguish it. In a market already offering far more choice of drinks calling themselves "Coke" in some fashion or another, the public saw little reason to embrace a product they had firmly rejected seven years earlier, and within about a year, Coke II was largely off the American shelves again. By 1998, it could only be found in some scattered Midwestern markets, and sometime in 2002, New Coke was discontinued entirely. On August 16 of that year, Coke announced a change of the label in which the word "Classic" was no longer so prominent, leading to speculation that it would eventually be removed and the last legacy of New Coke eliminated from the company's packaging. The production of Coke II is, however, still theoretically possible; comparatively few brands have been cancelled by Coca-Cola outright, and the decision is usually left to semi-independent bottling companies to decide what they will bottle.
It has found acceptance in some foreign markets. As of 2006, it was still selling in Yap (one of the four Federated States of Micronesia), along with Coca-Cola C2. It is also still very popular in the U.S. Territory American Samoa, where it is still sold in most Coke vending machines.
New Coke had the spotlight for only three months but casts a long shadow, in both the business world and popular culture, that can be seen today. It is most frequently mentioned as a cautionary tale among businesses against tampering too extensively with a well-established and successful brand.
"For a product so widely despised," noted AdWeek blogger Tim Nudd in 2006, more than two decades later, "New Coke (a.k.a. Coke II) still gets an admirable amount of ink." He noted Blink and Why Most Things Fail that dealt with it at some length, as well as two recent mentions in Forbes and Sports Illustrated.
Within Coca-Cola, the role the company's bottlers had played in forcing its hand led executives to create a new subsidiary, Coca-Cola Enterprises, which bought out several of the larger bottlers and placed distribution and marketing efforts more tightly under its control.
Coca-Cola's sudden reversal on New Coke led to several rumors and conspiracy theories that have circulated in the years since to explain how a company with the resources and experience of Coca-Cola could have made such an apparently colossal blunder.
Some explanations that have been proffered are:
Keough answered all speculation by saying "We're not that dumb, and we're not that smart", as Coke Classic was reintroduced.
In talks, and his book Blink, author Malcolm Gladwell relates his conversations with market researchers in the food industry who put most of the blame for the failure of New Coke on the flawed nature of taste tests. They claim most are subject to systematic biases.
Tests such as the Pepsi Challenge were what are called in the industry "sip tests", meaning that drinkers were given small samples (less than a can or bottle's worth) to try out. Gladwell contends that what people say they like in these tests may not reflect what they will actually buy to sit at home and drink over a week or so. Carol Dollard, who once worked in new product development for Pepsi, told Gladwell, "I've seen many times where the sip test will give you one result and the home-use test will give you the exact opposite." For example, although many consumers react positively to the sweeter taste of Pepsi when drinking it in small volumes, it may become unattractively sweet when drunk in quantity. Coke, on the other hand, may be more attractive for drinking in volume, precisely because it is less sweet. A more comprehensive testing regimen could possibly have revealed this, Gladwell's sources believe.
Gladwell reports that other market researchers have criticized Coke for not realizing that much of its success as a brand came from what they call sensation transference, a phenomenon first described by marketer Louis Cheskin in the late 1940s: tasters unconsciously add their reactions to the drink's packaging into their assessment of the taste. For example, one of the researchers told Gladwell that his firm's research had found 7-Up drinkers offered a sample from a bottle with a distinctly more yellowish label believe the flavor to be more lemony, although it wasn't.
In Coke's case, it is alleged that buyers, subject to sensation transference, were "tasting" the red color of the container and distinctive Coca-Cola script as much as the drink itself. It was thus, in their opinion, a mistake to focus solely on the product and its taste. "The mistake Coke made," said Darrel Rhea, an executive with the firm Cheskin founded, "was in attributing their loss in share entirely to the product". He points to Pepsi's work in establishing a youth-oriented brand identity from the 1960s onward as having more bearing on its success.
Coke considered but rejected gradually changing the drink's flavor incrementally, without announcing that they were doing so. Executives feared that the public would notice and exaggerate slight differences in taste. In 1998, Joel Dubow, a professor of food marketing at St. Joseph's University, tested this "flavor balance hypothesis" and argued that it was not true. He and fellow researcher Nancy Childs tested mixtures of classic Coke and Coca-Cola II and found that the gradual changes of taste were not noticed by a significant number of tasters. Coke, he said, would have succeeded had it chosen this strategy.