In an effort to re-energize it’s long-lasting brand, Coca-Cola took one of the biggest risks in consumer goods history on April 23, 1985. That’s the day the company introduced “New” Coke, unprepared for the consumer firestorm it would trigger.
I remember that week well. Still able to leave school grounds during lunch hour, friends and I would trek to local convenience stores and fill up on soda and chips in lieu of the typical cafeteria fare. The reaction to Coke’s new formula—in my circles—was nothing short of disgust. There was a reason we opted for Coca-Cola over other brands, and it was taste. New Coke just didn’t have it, and many of us switched to root beer or 7 Up—Coke’s new formula outright ruined my desire for cola.
We weren’t alone. Consumers across the US were outraged that the company would change the formula that had been so profitable for nearly a century.
Reportedly, by June of 1985, The Coca-Cola Company was fielding 1,500 calls a day on its consumer hotline (800-GET-COKE). Prior to the taste change the company averaged 400 calls daily. Formal protest groups were formed, including the Old Cola Drinkers of America and The Society for the Preservation of The Real Thing. In Atlanta people rallied with signs begging for the classic taste to return, even telling Coca-Cola that “Our children will never know refreshment.”
Then chairman and CEO Roberto Goizueta called the protests a wake-up call. “We set out to change the dynamics of sugar colas in the United States, and we did exactly that,” he said. “Albeit not in the way we had planned.” While Goizueta later labeled the decision to make a new formula a good example of “taking intelligent risks”, experts have called it the “marketing blunder of the century”. Despite relying on taste test results from about 200,000 consumers, loyal Coca-Cola drinkers en masse wanted nothing to do with something new.
On July 10th, Coca-Cola announced the return of the original formula. ABC News’ Peter Jennings actually interrupted the soap opera General Hospital to advise the public, and the news took the front page of nearly every major US newspaper. Reportedly within two days of the announcement Coca-Cola received more than 30,000 calls of gratitude.
For several years Coca-Cola Classic and “New” Coke could both be had. The two variations had separate ad campaigns and marketing, with the new formula being marketed to a younger audience. In 1992 “New Coke” was officially renamed Coca-Cola II. By the late ’90s, Coke II could only be found in Midwestern markets, and in 2002 the company discontinued it entirely, and dropped the word Classic from (original) Coca-Cola cans and bottles.
Today, manufacturers of all types of products use the New Coke fiasco as a key example of how consumers think, react and spend. There are also plenty of conspiracy theories and discussions of flawed tests in reference to that spring and summer.
- Some think Coca-Cola changed the formula in order to cause upset and higher demand for the original formula, thus causing huge sales spikes.
- Some believe the company made the switch only to return the original formula with the hope consumers wouldn’t notice the sugar replaced by high fructose corn syrup.
- Many behavior experts say that taste testing with “sip” samples isn’t viable—that in order to truly test a product, consumers need to consume it in larger volumes. (I agree. I took the Pepsi Challenge several times thinking I’d smile and nod as I chose Coke, and I always picked Pepsi, despite the fact I couldn’t drink a full bottle.)
- It was later reported that Coca-Cola had considered gradually changing Coke’s flavor secretly, but nixed the idea out of fear that consumers would notice incremental changes and exaggerate the differences in taste no matter how slight.
Regardless, I, like so many others, jumped for joy when the original formula returned. I had fond memories of sitting at the local gas station after feeding a single coin into the vending cooler and pulling out a glass bottle of my favorite cola. You see, it wasn’t just about the flavor. If you toy with people’s childhood memories, they’re bound to get upset. Fortunately, Coca-Cola recognized a real connection with its consumers and listened to them when it mattered most.
Do you remember when the Coke formula changed? Did you stock up (one guy reportedly spent $1,000 at a bottling plant before the switch)? Did you call into the Coke hotline? Chime in below.