The 79 days that nearly killed Coke

 

In 1985, Madonna's Like a Virgin dominated the airwaves. Back to the Future was the biggest box-office hit. And Coke released a new product so disastrous it nearly ruined the entire company.

In what has gone down in the history books as one of the biggest marketing blunders of all time, the 99-year-old brand decided to change the formula of its iconic drink for the first time.

The backlash to New Coke was as swift as it was brutal, with outraged Coke fans lashing the company over the unprecedented move.

Grassroots campaigns to bring back old Coke popped up across the US, collecting signatures, creating anti-New Coke merchandise and opening up hotlines to push the agenda.

New Coke was one of the biggest mistakes in the history of American business. Picture: Supplied
New Coke was one of the biggest mistakes in the history of American business. Picture: Supplied

In short, it was a PR nightmare, and the outcry was so intense the failed beverage was ditched just 79 days after launching, and it has remained as a cautionary tale for other brands to this day, even featuring front and centre in Sweden's aptly-named Museum of Failure.

But in May this year, New Coke made headlines once again 34 years on from that initial disaster, after the company revealed it was bringing the controversial drink back for a limited time only as part of a partnership with Netflix's Stranger Things.

It was a natural fit, as the show's third season was set in 1985 - and this time around, New Coke was a hit.

THE NEW COKE DEBACLE

The failed New Coke experiment was the direct result of arch rival Pepsi's famous Pepsi Challenge marketing promotion, which began in 1975.

It involved asking consumers to carry out a blind taste test of both Pepsi and Coke - which revealed most Americans actually preferred the taste of Pepsi, which contained more sugar, even though Coke was the market leader.

Coke responded to that information by fiddling with its famous recipe - and making it even sweeter.

However, according to Queensland University of Technology retail expert Dr Gary Mortimer, what they didn't take into consideration was the "brand effect".

 

The new product lasted just 79 days before the company switched back to the original. Picture: iStock
The new product lasted just 79 days before the company switched back to the original. Picture: iStock

While people liked the taste of Pepsi better, they identified more strongly with Coke and had greater loyalty to that brand, so when the old recipe vanished, people hit back.

"They still wanted to buy the red Coke can because it's iconic, it has been around for longer, and people grew up with it as kids," Dr Mortimer told news.com.au.

"Don't mess with the original - the same would be true of Tim Tams, just don't mess with it.

"The fundamental error they made was dumping the original based on data from a blind taste test."

Less than three months later, Coca-Cola announced it would return to the old formula, which was rebranded as Coca-Cola "Classic", while and New Coke quietly disappeared.

"The simple fact is that all of the time and money and skill poured into consumer research on a new Coca-Cola could not measure or reveal the depth and abiding emotional attachment to original Coca-Cola felt by so many people," Coca-Cola Company president Donald Keough said in a press conference at the time, according to CBS.

Dr Mortimer said Coke had learnt from its past mistake and now regularly brought out new products such as Diet Coke, Coke Zero and flavours such as cherry and orange - but without ditching the all-important original.

NEW COKE 2.0

But in late May, Coca-Cola released a limited number of cans of New Coke as part of the Stranger Things package, and an "upside-down" Stranger Things-inspired vending machine also popped up in select US cities to dispense free cans for a limited time.

At the time, a spokesman for Coca-Cola Australia told News Corp the limited range of New Coke would not be coming to Australia - but Dr Mortimer said the release still would have been enough to "absolutely" boost profits.

"They would have been raking it in, and it also would have helped to increase brand awareness, particularly among a younger audience who might not drink Coke. They may just end up picking up an extra bit of the market," he said.

He said while the initial release of New Coke was a massive flop, the decision to bring it back now temporarily was a genius move, as it capitalised on the "nostalgia effect" of the 80s and piggybacked on the popularity of the hit TV series.

"They want people to remember the 1980s and to reflect back on it - there would have been conversations started around the dinner table and at barbecues," he said.

"It also created the FOMO effect, as it was launched in very, very small quantities before they ditched it, which made people think they needed to get in and grab it."

He said a similar phenomenon was seen by the revival of other iconic, discontinued items like Pollywaffle chocolate bars.

"Sometimes when a brand disappears there's a huge outcry with people wanting it to be brought back. There's an outpouring of comments on social media which then gets mainstream media coverage - people go crazy for it," he said.

"They would also have good knowledge of who Stranger Things is being watched by and I suspect a lot of younger people watch it but also middle-aged people who reflect back and remember."



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