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Everything New is Old Again


At B Direct, we worry about many little things — 800-numbers, URLs, indicias, spelling. We take accuracy (and effectiveness) seriously. But, we're only human. And, it's somehow reassuring that much bigger marketers can make mistakes too.

Remember 1985? Ronald Reagan was president (again). USA for Africa released "We Are the World," featuring superstars Tina Turner, Lional Richie, Diana Ross, Cyndi Lauper, and Michael Jackson. The Iran-Contra Affair began. And, Back to the Future was the top-grossing film.

1985 was also the year of New Coke. Coca-Cola was struggling with a steep decline in sales (Coke only had a 24% share, less than half of its 60% share right after WWII). The company's researchers and strategists theorized that the drop was due to baby boomers preferring the sweeter taste of competitor Pepsi. So, they created a new, sweeter formula and in April launched New Coke. They quickly stopped production of traditional Coke.

As Vivian would soon say in Pretty Woman (just five years later), "Big mistake. Big. Huge."

The reaction was swift and emotionally charged — especially among Southerners. Coca-Cola's headquarters was a fixture in Atlanta, GA, and fans in the South saw the switch as a betrayal. It was as if General Lee had surrendered to Yankee General Grant all over again. The company received 40,000 letters and phone calls complaining. And, that's not all. There were boycotts, grassroots protests, and lawsuits brought by Coke's bottlers and distributors.

As Coca-Cola executives remember ...

"To hear some tell it, April 23, 1985, was a day that will live in marketing infamy ... spawning consumer angst the likes of which no business has ever seen."

Interestingly enough, no heads rolled at Coca-Cola. Bill Cosby resigned as spokesperson, however. He felt that his endorsement of New Coke had damaged his credibility. (Wow. Just wait three decades or so, Dr. Huxtable. New Coke should've been the least of your worries.)

Pepsi, of course, was triumphant, and focused all its advertising on the message, "We won the cola wars!"

Coca-Cola regrouped. They reissued the original formula beverage as "Coke Classic" — just 70 days after retiring it. There was a national sigh of relief and the world as we knew it was right once again. For the easy-going minority who preferred New Coke, they continued to produce and market it as "Coke II."

There are multiple theories about what "really happened." Some claim that the whole New Coke fiasco was actually a clever ploy to make people loyal to (the original) Coke again. Others believe that it was orchestrated to give Coca-Cola a chance to (a) replace sugar with corn syrup or (b) remove the last remnants of coca (which can be manufactured into cocaine) at the request of the DEA. Still others point out that the original Coke formula couldn't stay protected forever and that changing out the products allowed Coca-Cola to copyright it once again.

Conspiracy theories aside, New Coke remains a cautionary take for marketers considering phasing out a favorite in favor of something new.

As Adweek noted some twenty years later, "For a product so widely despised, New Coke (a.k.a. Coke II) still gets an admirable amount of ink."

Or, these days, blogspace.

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