Hard to believe that it has been 26 years since of one of the greatest moments in bad ideas. Yes, that’s how long it has been since the creation of “New Coke”. It seems crazy to think that, at one time, the number one soft drink in the world was facing strong competition and decided that the best idea was to change it’s famous (and famously secret) formula. “New Coke” was born and a marketing blitz came with it. A now-famous public backlash ensued and, at the demand of brand loyalists everywhere, Coke was forced to bring back it’s original formula almost immediately, dubbing it “Coke Classic”. With the recent retirement of the name “Coke Classic” (which just happened in 2009), it’s a good time to look back on 1985 and the year that belonged to New Coke. Below are a few facts you may not know about the soft drink that everyone loved to hate.
5. It Was Not A Failure. Although the New Coke story has become synonymous with marketing failure, the product itself did not fail. Many experts today agree that the error was in the marketing of the product and the perceived cavalier dismissal of the original formula. When it was rolled out, three quarters of drinkers polled reported they would buy it again. After the initial boom in sales, New Coke wound up performing about the same as the original formula had been selling. In fact, New Coke routinely won most public taste tests, even up into the late 90s. It was determined that the backlash to New Coke was really just the result of people angry over the absence of the old formula, rather than a distaste for the new one.
4. The Switch Did Not Help Pepsi. Upon the announcement of New Coke, Pepsi launched a popular ad campaign declaring itself the winner of the “Cola Wars”. From TV to print ads, Pepsi mocked the decision to change Coke’s formula by saying it was obviously due to trying to be like Pepsi. In actuality, Pepsi performed worse in sales that year than it had the year before, being beaten by New Coke, Coke Classic, and the extremely popular Cherry Coke, which was also released that year. In fact, it has often been speculated that Cherry Coke’s popularity helped Coca-Cola as much, if not more than, the introduction of Coke Classic that same year. Turns out that loyal “original formula” Coke drinkers, when faced with choosing between New Coke and Pepsi, simply chose neither.
3. Diet Coke is New Coke. Or vice-versa. When it was introduced in 1982, Diet Coke was an answer to Diet Pepsi, which had been around since 1964 and outsold Coke’s diet cola, Tab. Diet Coke quickly became the 3rd best-selling soda on the market, behind only original Coke and Pepsi. Using the “Coke” name helped it’s popularity, although Diet Coke is not a sugar-free version of the original Coke formula. As it turns out, New Coke was actually a version of the Diet Coke formula sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup. Even today, Diet Coke shares more with New Coke than it does the original formula, and Coke Zero is the closest Coke has ever come to a sugar-free version of its classic taste.
2. It Ended Bill Cosby’s Role as Spokesperson for Coke. Cosby was an enormously popular pitchman in the late 70s and early 80s. His flop movie Leonard part 6 was practically a two-hour Coke commercial. When New Coke was launched in 1985, Cosby led the roll-out in a series of commercials praising the new formula. It seemed weird, considering that Cosby himself praised original Coke for not being as sweet as Pepsi and now pitched a soda that was even sweeter. When the backlash hit, Cosby himself stepped down as pitchman for Coke, stating that he had lost all credibility with the New Coke campaign. Coke replaced Cosby with a pitchman who wound up being twice as popular: Max Headroom.
1. New Coke stuck around for years. Despite the marketing fiasco that ensued by getting rid of the old formula altogether, New Coke was not hated by everyone and still won many taste tests for years to come. Coca-Cola began simply calling it “Coke” and it shared the shelf with “Coke Classic”. The Max Headroom experiment was a success with young drinkers, exactly the people Coke had hoped to woo in the first place. By the end of 1985, New Coke was still selling well, albeit behind Coke Classic. In 1990, with little fanfare, it began appearing as “Coke II” in some markets and officially took that name in 1992. It was still being sold that way in the Midwest (where it still sold well) up through 1998 and wasn’t discontinued in North America entirely until 2002. To this day, the New Coke formula is still sold in some American territories, such as American Samoa.
Looking back on New Coke today, it’s crazy to think that the entire controversy spanned less than three months. Rumors still abound on the Internet that Coke planned the entire thing. Some say it was all a clever scheme to renew the patent on the famously secretive original formula. Others (wrongly) still believe it was merely a ploy to secretly hide the switch from using cane sugar to high-fructose corn syrup; a change which actually occurred in 1984. In reality, it was nothing but a colossal marketing error. In the end, Coke learned it’s lesson and never again changed it’s original formula. We’re still waiting for an apology for Clear Tab.