More Thoughts on New Coke

Last month, we discussed brand planning in the wake of an interesting article about the New Coke debacle. The story of New Coke has long been given as the example of brand planning gone wrong for a generation. The article questioned if the story as commonly told is really true.

Regardless of the conclusions from that particular article, the story of New Coke is still one that merits a deeper look into the many facets of brand planning and how the interplay between them all is critical to the success of a brand. 

First, consider the rebranding process from the standpoint of psychology and the science of taste. 

aWhile Coca-Cola extensively tested the product itself through blind taste tests, they apparently failed to fully test the idea of the product, its symbolic resonances—at least with certain core constituencies, for example the traditionalists who still loved to eat at drive-ins. 

This, combined with a misunderstanding of or lack of familiarity with the science around taste-testing led them astray.

Malcolm Gladwell, who wrote about New Coke in his book Blink, points to studies showing that taste tests have a bias toward sweeter beverages. This helps explain why Pepsi (generally considered sweeter) based its whole ad campaign around taste tests, and why the New Coke tests led the company astray.

Then consider the perspective of communications and sociology. 

Coke clearly didn’t foresee the outsize sway that “cranks” with strong negative reactions would have on the reception of the new product. Perhaps due to the media’s love of conflict-driven stories and the ever present angle of “taking down the giant,” what were, in reality, small groups of dissenters was able to metastasize into a huge negative narrative about the brand.

While the company expected a small but vocal group of dissenters, they miscalculated the effect that those people would have on neutrals. 

“Nine out of 10 Coke drinkers might have no problem with the change if you asked them individually. But put them in a room, and then put Andy Rooney in that room, and suddenly four of them are banging their fists on the table and talking about glass bottles. That’s how social influence works.”

Those patented curvy glass bottles also point to a great branding success that Coke set by the wayside. 

“Coca-Cola was grappling with a monster of its own making, because it had spent tens of millions of dollars wrapping the corporation’s identity around this particular kind of small-c conservatism—an idyll of small towns and wholesome values.”

When they launched the product in New York City they failed to take into account the way a brand interacts with regional identity, politics, and history. The place of launch added to the impression that New Coke was a northern act of aggression against southern tradition. In other words, they failed to see that Coke’s brand is fundamentally tied to the idea of wholesome American traditions, timelessness and changelessness—and, for some, to the South, where Coke was born. 

The launch of New Coke was intensively planned for half a decade, but ultimately failed because the planners apparently didn’t take into account all the different dimensions of the human experience that surrounded the product and its brand. 

But it’s unfair to suggest that the folks in charge at Coke could have foreseen everything that happened. It’s easy to see in hindsight where the failings were, but if they had just been a little more multidisciplinary, it may have given them a little more perspective. 

Yet even though New Coke was a failure at the time, the concept may have just been ahead of its time. Soft-drink trends have consistently gone in the direction New Coke pointed. A majority of Coke sales today are non-Classic products, such as Diet and Coke Zero and new and sweeter flavors continue to succeed. 

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