Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Holy Shit, the New Coke!

New Coke can

Let's say you're a soft drink manufacturer. In fact, you're the biggest soft drink manufacturer in the world. You're on top of the world for almost a century, keeping a huge majority of the market for yourself. Life is good. Then suddenly, one of your chief rivals decides to try a new markeitng thing and actually prove that people prefer Pepsi to your smelly old Coke in blind taste tests.

That's the position in which the Coca-Cola company found themselves in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Pepsi had introduced the "Pepsi Challenge," where random people would participate in blind taste tests and regularly choose Pepsi over Coke. It was a devastating blow to morale at poor, folksy old Coca-Cola, and the sales figures weren't helping. Between 1940 and 1980, Coca-Cola's market share dropped from a comfortable 60% to a terrifying 24%.

Coca-Cola is doing pretty well for themselves
Pictured is (one of the buildings at) their rickety old mom-and-pop multinational corporate headquarters

So they sprang into action. The President of Coca-Cola and the VP of Marketing developed a radical rebranding strategy that would involve not only introducing a new, sweeter version of the famous beverage, but discontinuing the original. Enormous amounts of money went into meticulously crafting the new formula and taste testing it against both Pepsi and the old Coke. They called it Project Kansas.

Kansas being boring
If there's a better name for a project that would ultimately fail to excite anyone in a positive way, I haven't heard it.

And it won. Big time. It was poised to be the new favorite drink of the entire world. In 1985, they gave the green light. All at once, Coca-Cola stopped selling their old drink and launched the New Coke. If you or anyone you know was alive and cognizant during the 1980s, you know what happened next: a complete, unmitigated, cluster-fucking disaster.
Hindenburg disaster
Coca-Cola, April of 1985

It's not that people didn't like the taste of the New Coke. Research showed they liked it better than anything. It just wasn't Coke, dammit. There were some initial successes, but the backlash was outrageous. Coca-Cola's hotline saw a 200% increase in calls, almost all of which were people talking about the old formula as though their favorite uncle had just died. Some were depressed. Some were angry. Some even threatened to sue. After three months of this, the company finally decided to relent. They announced that the classic recipe would be making a triumphant return. The news was so celebrated that it was brought up on the floor of the in-session United States Senate.
Ted "I don't know how filibusters work" Cruz
And that was the last time anyone did something pointless, misguided, and stupid on the Senate Floor

Here's the part where I prove myself wrong. I called the disaster "unmitigated," but the re-release of the original recipe was actually a massive mitigation. People were so relieved to have their familiar product back that Coca-Cola surged ahead in the market once again. After a few months (and, notably, the release of Cherry Coke), Coca-Cola enjoyed twice the sales as Pepsi.

Little by little, the company put New Coke behind them. Sales in the United States were discontinued shortly after Coca-Cola Classic came back. A few years later, the New Coke was more or less gone. Finally, in 2009, the "Classic" label was removed, and the last vestige of the massive failure turned enormous success was gone.

To sum up: Pepsi, to most people, simply tastes better than Coke. But taste is almost insignificant compared to the power of familiarity and nostalgia.

Holy shit.

1 comment:

  1. This was a really well-written article, I enjoyed reading it.