Saturday, April 17, 2010

Remembering 'New Coke' 25 Years Later

Next week marks the 25th anniversary of one of history's most infamously boneheaded marketing strategems.

On April 23, 1985, Coca-Cola introduced "New Coke" to -- not acclaim, as its top executives expected --  near universal disdain.  So poorly received was the new flavor formula that within months, "Coke Classic" appeared on store shelves alongside the New Coke, eventually replacing New Coke entirely.

Within days of the product's introduction, I wrote an article decrying the decision, assuming, as did most people at the time, that the original Coke formula would disappear forever.

This article appeared originally in the New York City Tribune on Monday, May 6, 1985, about two weeks after “New Coke” was introduced.

Coca-Cola, where is thy sting? Tradition, where is thy victory?

American culture has some perennial certainties. Just as sure as the sun will rise there will be firecrackers on the Fourth of July, there will be heavy beach traffic on summer weekends — and the flavor of Coke will always be the same.

The flavor of Coke? I misspeak. Tuesday on the plaza in front of the National Theatre here in Washington several thousand people were treated to free samples of the “new” Coca-Cola, a bland, wimpy version of the venerable old Coke. Lacking the snap and vigor of the original 99-year-old recipe, this “new” Coke is unworthy of the name. It does not live up to the slogan “The Real Thing?” The preferred beverage of presidents and kings is no more.

Words can barely express the deep pain I felt when I heard the Coca-Cola Company’s announcement that it is changing the formula for Coke for the first time in nearly a century. Their decision shakes the timbers of American society.

In a bold move designed to offset a creeping approach by Pepsi-Cola in the national soft drink market, Coke has used the results of the research that produced Diet Coke and has introduced a drink described by company chairman Roberto Goizueta as “smoother, rounder, yet bolder. It’s a more harmonious flavor.”

A journalist interviewed on NBC News the day of the announcement used a different description: “flat” She said, “It tastes like the can was left open in the refrigerator all night.” A bold move, indeed.

For nearly 100 years, nothing has been quite so certain in American consumer society as the basic flavor of Coca-Cola. Some have argued that there are regional variations due to different sources of water, Coke’s major ingredient, but these variations have been minimal, if indeed they have ever existed. The closest consumer good, in terms of uniformity, familiarity, and certainty has been the recognizable friendliness and responsible service at McDonald’s -- which, of course, serves Coke in all 5,500 of its restaurants nationwide.

Little old lady from Appalachia
E.J. Kahn, in his “biography” of Coca-Cola written about 2 decades ago, The Big Drink, noted that of 100 people tested for their familiarity with consumer products at the New York World’s Fair, only one — an elderly lady from Appalachia on her first trip to a city — could not recognize Coke’s logo or bottle. No other product — including Bic pens, Crest toothpaste, and, yes, Pepsi — came close to that near-universal familiarity.

Similarly, within 24 hours after Coke’s announcement of the new formula, two-thirds of all Americans knew about the change — a level of recognition most politicians spend a lifetime seeking.

Kahn also tells of the importance of Coke to “our boys overseas.” In the days before aluminum cans became the preferred vessel for soft drinks, local Coca-Cola bottlers around the country imprinted their towns’ names on the bottom of the bottle.

Like coins, Coke bottles would circulate far from their place of minting. Several bases in Europe and the Pacific during World War II would display empty Coke bottles, bottoms-up in a rack, never failing to bring nostalgic tears to the eyes of American servicemen looking through the bottles for a familiar place.

After the war, Coke became known as an agent of American imperialism, because no sooner would U.S. troops liberate Nazi- or Japanese-held territory than a Coke truck would arrive. Coca-Cola bottling plants, at least in the 1950s and ‘60s, were erected in more Third World countries than any other American industry.

To millions of people around the globe, Coke is synonymous with free enterprise and human liberty — at least to those who look upon the American flag with as much favor as they view Coke. Coca-Cola’s corporate system of decentralization, granting substantial autonomy to local bottlers while providing the secret-formula syrup from corporate headquarters in Atlanta, has been a model for multinational industrial development. Coke is a source of pride for the American spirit of enterprise — and it is thus scorned by the Kremlin and its dupes around the world.

Pepsi’s new television commercial gives us a teenage girl who asks, “Why is Coke doing this?” Indeed, why? What is Coke’s goal in changing the flavor of the world’s best-known carbonated beverage (if not the world’s favorite beverage, period)?

Coca-Cola products predominate in the U.S market — 35 percent of all soft drinks sold are made by Coke. Twenty-two percent of sales are for regular Coke, 5 percent for Diet Coke, about 1 percent each for Sprite and Tab. Basically, Diet Coke’s astounding popularity in the 2 years it has been on the market has narrowed the gap between non-diet Coca-Cola and Pepsi’s 18 percent market share.

Coca-Cola risks losing many loyal customers if they perceive its sweeter flavor as too different. Coke drinkers [drink] Coke qua Coke; if they wanted Pepsi, they would buy Pepsi. Already, the Wall Street Journal reports, loyalists are stockpiling bottles and cans from the last batch made with the secret formula, Merchandise 7X, kept in an Atlanta bank vault since 1886. (I confess to be one of the hoarders.)

Tradition, loyalty, steadfastness, pride in work, and good taste seem to matter not a whit to Coca-Cola Co. executives. Reducing American values to their most materialistic and mocking our spirit of enterprise, Coke’s President Donald Keough said: “The American way is to want more, and we want more,” meaning profits, not good will.

And so a tradition fades, like family squabbles about Milton Berle vs. Bishop Sheen, like barn-raisings, like knickers giving way to long pants, and like Saturday matinees with neighborhood pals — sharing popcorn, a Coke and a smile.

Richard Sincere writes from Washington on national affairs.

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