Claim: Coca-Cola halted production of its flagship beverage in 1985 and introduced New Coke in its place as a marketing ploy to combat declining market share and rekindle interest in the original drink.
Origins: As much as we’d like to believe that The
It’s inconceivable to us mere mortals that a company of the size and scope of
the one it made in 1985. Although company officials have been honest (albeit a bit redfaced) about the blunder all along, the legend has arisen that New Coke was nothing more that a throwaway product created as part of a greater plan. People refused to believe any decision that colossally disastrous (and ultimately that colossally fortuitous) could have been the mere result of a very human miscalculation.
And yet it was. It was also a very logical — indeed, reasonable
The early 1980s found Coke teetering on the edge of losing the cola war to Pepsi. The previous fifteen years saw
Coke’s market share problems were exacerbated by the relative success of other types of sodas, including some manfactured by
Introduced in 1982, Diet Coke shot up the charts to become the uncontested #4 soft drink in America (with only Coke, Pepsi, and
Unless something was done to stem the tide, it was only a matter of time before Pepsi pulled ahead of
When all other factors were eliminated, it came down to a matter of flavor. Batteries of well-controlled taste tests showed folks liked the taste of Pepsi better. Seemingly confirming that original
Enter New Coke. When traditional methods of developing a new taste failed, Coca-Cola pulled a reverse on the old method of creating diet soft drinks. Diet Coke was stripped of its artificial sweeteners, and high fructose corn syrup was added in their place. After a year of fiddling with the flavor balances, New Coke was finally as good as the company could make it. It tasted smoother and sweeter than original Coke, more like Pepsi. Sounds like a good idea so far, eh? Well, it sounded like an even better one when the results came in from a battery of taste tests utilizing the new formula. People said they liked the new Coke better than
The next hurdle was what to do with the original: continue to market it, or discontinue the product? The company was already seeing its sugar cola market shrink thanks to competing lines; it wasn’t going to make its market share problems any worse by splitting its entry in the sugar cola category. Although New Coke and Classic Coke drinkers combined might outnumber Pepsi imbibers, it was a lead pipe cinch Pepsi would claim to have a more popular drink than one or both of them. This was too big a marketing advantage to hand to
So what happened? When Coke went ahead with its plan, an immediate and very loud outcry was raised. Long before they’d tasted a sip of it, millions of Americans had decided they hated New Coke. Yes, in blind taste tests people had consistently said they liked the new formula better. However, a soft drink is so much more than merely its flavor; a soda is also its marketing. Coke had spent more than a hundred years convincing the North American population that its product was an integral part of their lives, their very identities. Taste be damned: to do away with
Although the company had known all along a segment of Coke drinkers weren’t going to switch to the new product, they had no way to even roughly estimate how large this segment would be. The New Coke project had been kept secret for years; this secrecy wouldn’t have been possible if company personnel had been questioning test subjects on how they’d feel about the new cola if it were to replace the old one. That secrecy lay at the heart of the fiasco, for it prevented
New Coke was introduced on
The passion for original
There is a twist to this story which will please every humanist and will probably keep Harvard professors puzzled for years. The simple fact is that all the time and money and skill poured into consumer research on the new
The passion for original
How important was this news of the beloved beverage’s return? Vital enough that Peter Jennings of ABC News interrupted General Hospital to break the story on national TV. Company insiders referred to the decision as “the second coming,” and that’s how consumers reacted to it. Anger melted into forgiveness, and then turned to celebration.
Having two sugar cola products on the market did indeed split the market share as
Those who’d liked New Coke (but wouldn’t, one would suppose, be caught dead drinking it due to all the bad feelings associated with the beverage) gravitated to Diet Coke, the product that tasted most like what they really wanted.
An interesting little claim sprang up in the wake of the introduction of Classic Coke, one having to do with its sweetener. People swore they detected a change in the flavor between Classic Coke and the original. This gave rise to the rumor that the product had been reformulated, dropping cane sugar in favor of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). Depending upon whom you listened to, either the demand for the return of original
The change in sweetener wasn’t anything that diabolical. Corn syrup was cheaper than cane sugar; that’s what it came down to. In 1980, five years before the introduction of New Coke, Coca-Cola had begun to allow bottlers to replace half the cane sugar in
In the wake of the discontinuation of the original cola, the introduction of New Coke, and the return of the original a few months later as Classic Coke, persistent rumors sprang up that it had all been a gambit to rekindle
It’s inconceivable that
The can itself is another point against this theory. Prior to New Coke,
These rumors are an attempt to make sense of the unthinkable, that a company of the size and reputation of
The company’s rebound from this disaster was nothing short of a miracle (hence the persistent belief that the whole thing must have been planned). Yet it’s a very understandable miracle once you think about it. It took the loss of the beverage people had grown up with and fallen in love over to remind them how much it meant to them. No longer taken for granted,
Barbara “kvetch the wave” Mikkelson
Last updated: 19 May 2011
Allen, Frederick. Secret Formula. New York: HarperCollins, 1994. ISBN 0-88730-672-1 (pp.
Gorman, John. “Classic Case of Formula Forethought?” Chicago Tribune. 14 July 1985 (p. C3). Greising, David. I’d Like the World to Buy a Coke. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1998. ISBN 0-471-19408-5. Pendergrast, Mark. For God, Country, and Coca-Cola. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1993. ISBN 0-684-19347-7 (pp. 354-371). Potts, Mark. “Coca-Cola: Pausing to Refresh Formula?” The Washington Post. 23 April 1985 (p. C1).