Day 470: Coke – The Real Thing. Except When It’s Not.

originally published April 14, 2013

There comes a moment in every parent’s experience when they need to sit down with their kids, and have a solemn and serious discussion about one of the great psychological scars across the puffy face of our entitled western culture. The moment when one of our corporate institutions, one of the titans of stability and consistency of our youth, of our parents’ youth, and of their parents’ youth, was marred and defaced.

I’m speaking of course about New Coke.

When New Coke happened, I was ten years old. “New” meant “exciting” to me. I remember my fifth grade teacher, Mr. Foster, telling us how Coke was 99 years old, as sacred an institution within our culture as our culture will allow. My parents didn’t care – they consumed Diet Coke, Tab, and other relics of the early 80’s diet crazes. “What’s the big deal?” I thought. “It’s just Coke, and if it’s a new flavor, it must be better, right?”

Then I tasted it.

To trace the origins of this crime against hundreds of millions of taste buds, we have to look at the soda landscape of the early 80’s. Pepsi was outselling its elder brother in supermarkets; Coke was dominating only in vending machines and restaurants. Their market share since the end of WWII had dipped from 60% to under 24%. The baby boomers – much like my parents – were hopping on the health-consciousness train and gobbling up sugar-free drinks. My generation was told in 1984 that Pepsi was the “choice of a new generation.” That was us. Pepsi was supposed to be our drink.

Lines were drawn among my friends. Pepsi/Coke was like the Beatles/Stones battleground of our era. I was always on the Coke side, but apparently my camp wasn’t enough. Coke needed a kick. Enter the new CEO, Robert Goizueta:

Now, I’m not going to be too hard on Bob. Under Bob’s reign as CEO, he introduced Diet Coke, released Cherry Coke, and swiftly established Coca-Cola as the most recognizable trademark in the world. He entered the race to win, and win he did. But if we’re keeping up the race metaphor – and I am known for dragging metaphors to their graves, kicking and screaming – this was the moment in an early lap when Bob stepped in a pile of dog crap on the course.

If anything we can blame marketing VP Sergio Zyman and president of Coca-Cola USA, Brian Dyson. They’re the ones who took the new flavor on the road, ran taste tests and focus groups, and did their damnedest to skew the results into a positive. Sure, there were 10-12% of tasters who were outright offended at the notion of this new recipe calling itself Coke. But the truth was, the sugary concoction was actually beating out both Coke and Pepsi in the surveys.

It was that 10-12% in the focus groups – they were the glitch in the system. They were so vocal, it was actually believed that they skewed the numbers by exerting peer pressure on the other respondents.

Management considered marketing the new product as an offshoot of Coke. That was tossed, as they believed it would just dilute the market and strengthen Pepsi as a brand. Bob Goizueta was dead set on New Coke replacing its predecessor. When a smuggled 6-pack of New Coke made its way to Pepsi’s executive offices right before the product was launched, the execs felt it was a credible threat. Roger Enrico, director of North American Pepsi operations, took out a full-page ad in the New York Times, declaring the upcoming announcement by their rival would be conclusive evidence that Pepsi had won the Cola Wars.

The press conference on April 23, 1985 to launch New Coke was a disaster. Reporters had been fed questions by Pepsi, and doubt was already putrifying the air before Bob Goizueta even took the podium. Bob defended the so-called sacred nature of the original recipe, pointing out that they had already made a few tweaks back in 1935 in order to have an Atlanta rabbi bless the drink as kosher. He wouldn’t give Pepsi any credit for inspiring the change, nor would he credit taste tests – in fact, Bob couldn’t actually give any reason for New Coke. Reporters were baffled.

The thing is, despite New Coke being sweeter and radically different from the original recipe, it still sold well. Workers who were renovating the Statue Of Liberty were symbolically given the first cans to take home. Surveys showed that the majority of people actually liked the new blend. Bob almost got away with it.

The uprising against the new flavor began in the American South, where stalwart Cokophiles felt that giving up on their original recipe was akin to another southern surrender to the Yankees. Bob Goizueta was flooded with angry mail, including one request for an autograph because the autograph of “one of the dumbest executives in American history” might be worth some money someday. A lobby group was formed. A class action lawsuit was filed (dismissed by a judge who admitted he preferred Pepsi). Bottles were being bought just to be dumped in the streets.

It was a dark time. That vocal 10-12% was loudly tipping the scales.

It took less than three months for the company to cave, announcing the original formula’s return. ABC’s Peter Jennings interrupted an episode of General Hospital to break the news. It was as though light was once again shining upon the cavernous hellscape of a desecrated soda landscape.

Except that things were still different. Any plants that hadn’t yet made the switch over from sugar to high fructose corn syrup did so when Coke Classic was introduced. So the ‘original recipe’ of Coke remained out of reach. But the public didn’t care – Coca-Cola Classic went on to out-sell both New Coke and Pepsi by the end of the year.

New Coke’s sales dwindled, and eventually it was repackaged and branded as Coke II. It was never promoted, and trickled out the door in select markets until 2002 when it was discontinued. The company waited until 2009 to remove all ties to the blunder by removing the word ‘Classic’ from all their labels. Once again, Coke was just Coke.

But was it a blunder? Coke’s sales exploded as a result of the year-long publicity, and they never looked back. Some conspiracy theorists believe the whole thing was a plot, intended to cash in on the public’s outcry over the new flavor. Others think it was a scam to sneakily introduce the new high fructose corn syrup blend. Whatever you believe, it quashed Pepsi’s run for Coke’s throne.

So yes, kids, we did almost lose our precious Coca-Cola to a much lesser taste – and I don’t care what the surveys said, I was ten and I could taste the New Coke for the swill it was – but as a society, good sense prevailed.

Next time, I’ll tell you all about the horrors of… ugh… Crystal Pepsi.

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