It’s Always New Coke

Brand planning is about much more than what people think of as “branding” (logos, taglines, colors, etc.)—it requires a holistic understanding of the way people think and behave. It’s a discipline that draws on virtually every other discipline (at least within the humanities & social sciences)

So whenever someone needs an example of brand planning gone wrong for business school, the lesson is almost always about New Coke.

What is the worst brand planning ever? Who enraged millions by changing their core product? How do you fail at research and planning in the most spectacular way?

Some of it is true. The story of New Coke Great certainly illustrates that branding is about so much more than branding - it’s about politics, sociology, geographical identity, even philosophy. It;s a great reminder that there is an “interdisciplinarity” angle to brand decisions and no changes are made in a vacuum.

But maybe New Coke isn’t really the exemplar we in the world of marketing, branding, and research have often held it up as. A terrific new article in Mother Jones claims otherwise.

The popular version goes like this: In the early 1980s, not content with producing the world’s most recognizable beverage, greedy executives tweaked the recipe for the first time in 94 years. They redesigned the can, launched a massive marketing blitz, and promised a better taste. But Americans wouldn’t stand for it. In the face of a nationwide backlash, the company brought back the old formula—now dubbed “Coke Classic”—after two months. The story of New Coke is eternal. It’s a parable of hubris.

It’s also a lie.

The story traces how Coca Cola took the change incredibly seriously. Maybe even too seriously. They did tons of research and considered all their options. Then, a small but loud group, whose founded didn’t even like Coke - new or old - stirred the pot in hopes of being paid to keep quiet. It’s a great and detailed story that is worth the read and may change how you think about the common knowledge of New Coke.

But if you’re not convinced, there is always the New Coke conspiracy theory… Coca Cola knew that New Coke would fail and it was the ultimate expression of “I don’t care what you say about me, as long as you spell my name right” advertising, earning colossal amounts of free media to this very day.

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