Thought Vomit #160: ft. New Coke

In 1985, The Coca-Cola Company relaunched their eponymous drink with a new flavour. The story of New Coke is fascinating, encompassing as it does notions of brand identity, flawed experiments, lingering Civil War resentment, and the use of conspiracy theories as a narrative device to make sense of the world.

The mid-Eighties saw Pepsi on the rise, outselling Coke in supermarkets, and massively favoured by younger consumers. Coke realised that any growth in the market would come from older drinkers who were migrating to diet drinks, or the lucrative children’s market. But the kids preferred the sweeter taste of Pepsi.

And so it was decided to re-formulate the flavour, making it sweeter and more attractive to the young. This new mixture overwhelmingly beat both classic Coke and Pepsi in taste tests. However, in focus groups, a vocal minority were incensed at the tinkering of the flavour, and said they would boycott the drink if it was sold, and exerted a great deal of peer pressure to bring the rest of the group along.

But this was a time when focus groups were frowned upon, and the positive results from the surveys meant the decision was made.

Thus, New Coke was born.

Initially, it was a hit. Drinkers in New York and Washington liked it, and said they would keep buying it. But the backlash began in the South, and just as in the focus groups, it was vocal and bitter. Some even saw it as another surrender to the Yankees. A psychiatrist hired by the company to listen to the flood of complaints on the phone said it sounded like people were talking about a bereavement.

So as summer came, the usual spike in consumption didn’t materialise.

America was seemingly changing its mind about this New Coke (they liked the taste, but much preferred the IDEA of the old taste). But it was when Coke’s bottlers and distributors began to kick up a fuss that the company exacted it’s volte-face.

77 days after the launch, Classic Coke was back.

Some wondered how an evil corporate behemoth that indoctrinated kids via Happy Meals and TV Screens could make such a monumental cock-up, and it took the company some time to figure it out themselves.

Sip taste tests were found to be flawed. Given a small amount of drink to taste, consumers often favoured the sweeter drink, no matter what it was, but in real-world tests, drunk in volume, sweeter drinks perform less well. Coke does better in these test precisely because it is less sweet. But the company didn’t carry out any such test.

Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Blink, argues that Coke also failed to grasp the idea of Taste Transference, wherein the packaging subconsciously affects the flavour. So a more yellow can will invoke a more “lemony” taste. Others believe that the taste of Coke triggers happy childhood memories, and tinkering with the flavour meant the trigger was gone.

Pepsi were cock-a-hoop at New Coke. The boss gave the entire company the day off, and wrote in a letter that they had won the Coke Wars because their older rival had caved. But with the return of Classic Coke, Pepsi saw its growth subside, and within six months, Coke was massively outselling its rival once more.

A nice example of corporate hubris there.

But this, combined with the decision by Coke to set up its own bottling arm in response to the power its bottlers had held over them, is a good example of how conspiracy theories form.

It made no sense, in retrospect, to change the flavour of Coke. Why would a company do such a stupid thing? When the human mind can’t make sense of something, it looks for patterns, and the pattern here seemed to be that the launch of New Coke reinvigorated desire for Old Coke, and thus the whole thing must have been a marketing stunt to boost dwindling sales.

This ignores the fact that New Coke was obviously a marketing stunt to boost sales, in and of itself, and one that went spectacularly bollocks up. As one Coke executive said, “We’re not that dumb. And we’re not that smart.”

Another theory goes that Coke did it to smash their dependence on cane sugar. They used the whole thing to disguise the fact that when Classic Coke was relaunched, they were now using High Fructose Corn Syrup instead of the old cane sugar. The sugar trade lobby group even took out a full-page advert saying as much.

But what’s a conspiracy theory unless it ropes in the Government somehow?

Coke did it – right – because the Drug Enforcement Administration made it. Right. Classic Coke yeah, had coca in it, from the fields in Peru, and yeah, the DEA okay, wanted to eradicate coca fields all across South America because of cocaine and shit. New Coke didn’t have coca in it. And no doubt, yeah, Coke got some sort of big Government contract for New Coke in return for stamping on the rest of the world. Yeaaahhh.

The real story seems inadequate, and so disappointed minds seek a more coherent story.

But personally I find the whole thing fascinating, and urge you to read more about it.

A comment on YouTube underneath this video reads “How many people would accept Bill Cosby as the face of an all-controlling Government?”

Cosby quit as the Coke spokesman after the affair because he thought that championing the new taste as superior had damaged his credibility.

As an interesting footnote, later research found that the spike in Coke sales that summer after the relaunch of Classic Coke could be attributed to … the success of Cherry Coke.

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