Misunderstood: The Saga of New Coke Part I
I love soda. I mean, I REALLY love soda. It’s almost an unnatural love…..a forbidden love, if you will. Due to this, I’ve been fascinated for years by the cola wars between Coke and Pepsi. My formative years were right in the middle of the ‘80s; the Vietnam of the cola wars. During the 1980s, Coke and Pepsi threw out more gimmicks than a used car salesman trying to hawk his wares during a “Sales Event”. It was a soda lovers’ nirvana (and I don’t mean the alternative rock band). One of the more infamous ploys of this period was the introduction of New Coke. Never has a company’s promotion and decision making been so thoroughly bitch-slapped by the American public. It was embarrassing, and, in my opinion, a complete over-reaction. In this three part article, we will look at the saga of New Coke, from inception all the way to the bloody aftermath and what Coke gained or lost by their gamble. I’ll even ponder if New Coke might actually still be on the shelves…but under a different name, and at the end of each article (including this one) I’ll provide links to classic Coke and Pepsi commercials. So punch 1983 into the flux capacitor and let’s get this bitch up to 88 miles an hour because our story starts, not with New Coke…………but Diet Coke.
1983 was a tough year for Coca-Cola. For decades, Coca-Cola had been the preferred soft drink in America, but market research had proven that consumers in the early ‘80s preferred sodas with a sweeter taste than traditional Coca-Cola. Most sodas at this time were using aspartame or a similar, cheaper sweetener to flavor their drinks while Coke continued to use cane sugar or another sweetener very similar to cane sugar. Also at the time, diet drinks were becoming extremely popular as more and more people were becoming aware of the high amount of calories found in Coke, Pepsi and other soft drinks. Diet Pepsi was the current king of the low calorie, artificially sweetened soda. Years before, Coke released its own diet drink, TaB, but refused to market it as Coca-Cola because they did not want to dilute the Coca-Cola brand with more drinks, but, in essence, TaB was Diet Coke. No matter what Coke did, though, they continued to lose market share to Pepsi and they decided something had to be done about it.
In 1980 Roberto Goizueta (seen right) took over as CEO of the Coca-Cola Company. He let it be known that all traditions are “out the window” and it was time for Coke to “shake things up”. Seeing the success of Diet Pepsi and the relative obscurity of TaB, Goizueta used the market research mentioned earlier and decided to reformulate TaB using similar artificial sweeteners (i.e. aspartame) found in Diet Pepsi. Thus, the end product was formulated to be very similar to Diet Pepsi, and not really a diet version of Coca-Cola. Against company tradition the resulting product was branded as Diet Coca-Cola and released in 1983. Over the next few years, Diet Coke would outsell all of Coke’s other products by a wide margin. Not helping things, Pepsi’s enormously popular “Pepsi Challenge” further eroded Coke’s penetration into the soft drink market causing panic in the Atlanta based headquarters of Coca-Cola.
With Diet Coke siphoning sales from other Coke products and the Pepsi Challenge causing the buying public to lose faith in the Coke brand, CEO Roberto Goizueta thought it was time for more drastic measures. Having quietly tweaked Coke’s formula before in foreign markets to help drive up sales, Roberto had little qualms about altering the secret formula for Coca-Cola Proper here in the States. He believed the flavor change should be done with a huge marketing campaign and not kept secret from the public. So preparations were made to re-formulate Coca-Cola’s flavor to be more like Diet Coke and completely eliminate the current Coke product. After extensive formula research and market testing Coke finally stumbled on a concoction that tested through the roof with focus groups. The newer formula even bested Pepsi and Diet Pepsi in taste trials. It looked as though Coke had a winner. Goizueta had his marketing department work in absolute secrecy on a campaign, even going so far as having them work in another building after hours so nothing would leak to the press. The Coca-Cola Company planned on unveiling the new formula during their centennial year, 1985.
Don’t miss Part 2 of this article where you’ll read about the introduction of New Coke and the initial public reaction.
Classic Coke/Pepsi commercials:
Jackson Street – One of my favorite Pepsi commercials of all time. Michael Jackson meets a young Alfonso Ribeiro from Fresh Prince of Bel-Air for a dance off. I LOVE this commercial.
Mean Joe Green – The classic Coke ad with Mean Joe Green throwing his jersey to a kid. Still makes me tear up.
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