New Coke — Lesson from the Summer of 1985

“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.” — The Coca-Cola Company, commenting on the New Coke announcement.

In April 1985, The Coca-Cola Company launched New Coke, and discontinued the production of the original formulation. Taste tests findings clearly indicated consumers’ preference for the sweeter New Coke mixture over both regular Coca-Cola and Pepsi. But the consumers’ response was not what Coca-Cola had anticipated. At the onset, it was a minority, albeit a vocal one that protested against the transformation of a brand that had become so much a part of their heritage. Their mood was infectious and headquarters in Atlanta started receiving an avalanche of letters expressing anger and dismay.

What transpired was one of the greatest expressions of the will of consumers. Overwhelmed with over 400,000 calls and letters, the company reintroduced Coca-Cola, as Coca-Cola Classic. One can only imagine what the response might have been, if consumers, at that time, were empowered by social media.

The episode gave us a rare glimpse of the enormous depth of emotion that consumers feel for Coca-Cola. A psychiatrist the company hired to listen in on calls told Coca-Cola executives that some callers sounded as if they were discussing the death of a family member.

New Coke was more than a change of formulation. The brand name, logo, and the manner it was presented was altered in one fell swoop. No longer the “the real thing”, for many Americans it was the demise of the Coca-Cola that they knew, and had grown to love.

This was a demonstration of the enormous power that resides in the minds of consumers for this extraordinary brand. According to Muhtar Kent, the company’s chairman & CEO, “Coca-Cola is more than just a drink. It is an idea; it is a vision, a feeling.” Great brands like Coca-Cola live beyond generations, becoming part of society’s heritage, bonding people together across the globe.

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