New Coke: A Marketing Fail or Success?
March 28, 2018
Marketing is a game. You can choose to play it safe or take a risk and hope for the best. Even with the most exhausting research and expert opinions, a bold marketing campaign is a roll of the dice.
So while we may laugh at some marketing fails and wonder “what were they thinking,” as marketers we have to respect the fact that someone took a chance. And maybe by taking a look at it with a different perspective, you’ll see some positives. I know personally when one of my marketing campaigns fails, I am the first one to point out anything positive to my boss as soon as possible. Let’s take a look at a memorable marketing blunder from the mid-80s and see what we can learn from it.
Catch the Wave – NEW COKE
Ahh the classic go-to of all marketing fails. Even people outside of the marketing industry recognize this one as a huge marketing error. Well, people over the age of 35 at least. It was the 80s and the cola wars were in full effect. Coke was winning, but Pepsi was gaining ground. Coke expected their lead to end very soon, so on April 23, 1985, the company decided to make a bold, risky move. On that day they launched New Coke. Technically it was still called Coke, it just had the word “new” on the can. And everyone (again, over the age of 35) will remember how that went. It was disaster of epic proportions, right?
Even though Coca-Cola conducted countless amounts of research and taste testing and spent millions on ad campaigns, New Coke failed. According to Coca-Cola, thousands of people called the company’s offices to complain (1,500 calls a day compared to the usual 400!), and many of the employees were harassed by friends and family, being held personally responsible for the change.[i] Even the bottling companies that had no say in the matter received complaints.
The launch of New Coke had an interesting effect on consumers. Some panicked and bought thousands of dollars’ worth of “regular” Coke, while others expressed their support of the beverage via protests. In an article on Coca Cola’s website called “The Real Story of New Coke,” the company remembers just how intense the consumer reaction was to the introduction of New Coke:
Protest groups — such as the Society for the Preservation of the Real Thing and Old Cola Drinkers of America (which claimed to have recruited 100,000 in a drive to bring back “old” Coke) — popped up around the country. Songs were written to honor the old taste. Protesters […] carried signs with “We want the real thing” and “Our children will never know refreshment.”[ii]
Grass roots campaigns to bring back the old Coke started up everywhere, and local media outlets had a field day.
What an epic fail, right?
All of this incredible passion happened over a period of just 79 days. On July 11, 1985, Coca-Cola brought back the original formula, labelled Coke Classic. Only 79 days—it really seemed to me at the time, with the amount of hysteria surrounding the New Coke campaign, like it lasted much longer than this. It was the biggest news story of the summer.
When Coke Classic debuted, every major newspaper featured it on the front page, and leading television network newscasts covered the story. The popular television show General Hospital was even interrupted so news anchor Peter Jennings could inform the viewers of the debut. Coca-Cola received 31,600 calls in two days, and people showed up in crowds to buy the original new-old Coke. Parties were held and a giant cheer went across the nation.
Still an epic fail, right?
Let’s step back and look at this. Any marketer out there right now who would like their customers to buy thousands of dollars of your company’s product to hoard, create protest groups demanding it, write songs about it, come up with catchy taglines, and have the whole country talking about it, please raise your hand.
Now, after everyone in the country—and even the world—is talking about you, you give them exactly what they want. Which was just your regular product. And how do they react? They love you even more for it. Executives at Coca-Cola at the time said with the amount of praise and thanks they received, you would think they had invented the cure for cancer.
Although Coca-Cola Classic was sold along with New Coke, the advertising campaigns for the products were very different. New Coke tried to be more appealing to the youth with their “Catch the Wave” campaign. Coke Classic, however, attempted to bring up emotional feelings with the “Red, White and You” campaign.[iii] New Coke was eventually renamed Coke II and was then discontinued altogether.[iv]
Chances are Coca-Cola would still be the corporate giant it is today regardless of this incident.
But now they are much more. The campaign is secure as a symbol of pop culture; studies have been done on it, classes taught around it, and 30+ years later it still gets mentioned. Even people who weren’t alive when it happened still have general knowledge of what transpired. And no one is even upset. No marketing executives were fired or even disciplined, either.
Coca-Cola has labeled itself as a company that “stands today as testimony to the power of taking intelligent risks, even when they don’t quite work as intended,”[v] an outlook that is perhaps inspired by the comments made by Roberto Goizueta, who was the CEO of Coca-Cola at the time New Coke was launched, at the 10-year anniversary celebration of the beverage:
We set out to change the dynamics of sugar colas in the United States, and we did exactly that—albeit not in the way we had planned, […] but the most significant result of ‘new Coke’ by far […] was that it sent an incredibly powerful signal … a signal that we really were ready to do whatever was necessary to build value for the owners of our business.[vi]
Although Coca-Cola is a massive corporation in the food and beverage industry, a lot can be learned from the New Coke experience and applied successfully to book marketing. Books are kind of like soda—they seem to have always been around. Books, like soda, are part of our culture. We have favourites as well as ones we don’t like. Some of us are passionate about books, and others are not. Some are “addicted,” others just casually read one or two, and yet others never touch them.
On their own, books do an ok job promoting themselves. The covers, the authors, the story—all these factors help. You can play it safe and simply show customers your inventory, or you can take a gamble and try to come up with something new. Something that people will be writing about 30+ years from now in their blogs (or whatever space-age technology we are using then). I challenge all of you book marketers out there to push the limits of your own creativity, and that in turn will push others to step up their games as well. Perhaps one summer—maybe even this one—the only subject the public will be talking about is the “Book Wars” and how one company took a massive chance and arose stronger and more successful out of it.
So don’t be afraid to take “intelligent risks” or “set out to change the dynamics” of books. Let’s shake things up!
[i] “The Real Story of New Coke.” Coca-Cola Corporation, November 14, 2012. http://www.coca-colacompany.com/stories/coke-lore-new-coke.
[iii] “A History of Coca-Cola Advertising Slogans.” Coca-Cola Corporation, January 1, 2012. http://www.coca-colacompany.com/stories/coke-lore-slogans.
[iv] Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, s.v. “Coke II,” (accessed June 5, 2017), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_Coke#Coke_II.
[v] “The Real Story of New Coke.” Coca-Cola Corporation, November 14, 2012. http://www.coca-colacompany.com/stories/coke-lore-new-coke.