On this date in 1985, New Coke, the unofficial name for the reformulation of Coca-Cola, was introduced by the Coca-Cola Company to replace the original formula of its flagship soft drink Coca-Cola, or Coke. Immediately after World War II, the market share for Coca-Cola was 60%, but by 1983, it had declined to under 24%, largely because of competition from Pepsi-Cola. Pepsi had begun to outsell Coke in supermarkets, and Coke maintained its edge only through soda vending machines and fountain sales in fast food restaurants, concessions, and sports venues where Coca-Cola had exclusive rights. Market analysts believed baby boomers were more likely to purchase diet drinks as they aged, and growth in the full-calorie segment would have to come from younger drinkers, who at that time favored Pepsi by even more overwhelming margins than the market as a whole. When Roberto Goizueta became Coca-Cola CEO in 1980, he pointedly told employees there would be no “sacred cows” in how the company did business, including how it formulated its drinks.
Coca-Cola’s senior executives commissioned a secret project headed by marketing vice president Sergio Zyman and Coca-Cola USA president Brian Dyson to create a new flavor for Coke. This research, called “Project Kansas”, took its name from a photo of Kansas journalist William Allen White drinking a Coke; the image had been used extensively in Coca-Cola advertising and hung on several executives’ walls. The sweeter cola overwhelmingly beat both regular Coke and Pepsi in taste tests, surveys, and focus groups. Asked if they would buy and drink the product if it were Coca-Cola, most testers said they would, although it would take some getting used to. About 10-12% of testers felt angry and alienated at the thought, and said they might stop drinking Coke altogether. The surveys, which were given more significance by standard marketing procedures of the era, were less negative than the taste tests and were key in convincing management to change the formula in 1985, to coincide with the drink’s centenary. But the focus groups had provided a clue as to how the change would play out in a public context, a data point the company downplayed but which proved important later.
Management rejected an idea to make and sell the new flavor as a separate variety of Coca-Cola. The company’s bottlers were already complaining about absorbing other recent additions into the product line since 1982, after the introduction of Diet Coke; Cherry Coke was launched nationally nearly concurrently with New Coke during 1985. Many of them had sued over the company’s syrup pricing policies. A new variety of Coke in competition with the main variety could also have cannibalized Coke’s sales and increased the proportion of Pepsi drinkers relative to Coke drinkers.
New Coke was introduced on April 23, 1985. The press conference at New York City’s Lincoln Center to introduce the new formula did not go well. Reporters had already been fed questions by Pepsi, which was worried that New Coke would erase its gains. Coca-Cola introduced the new formula with marketing pushes in New York, where workers renovating the Statue of Liberty for its 1986 centenary were given cans, and Washington, D.C., where thousands of cans were given away in Lafayette Park. As soon as New Coke was introduced, the new formula was available at McDonald’s and other drink fountains in the United States. Sales figures from those cities, and other areas where it had been introduced, showed a reaction that went as the market research had predicted. In fact, Coke’s sales were up 8% over the same period as the year before. Most Coke drinkers resumed buying the new Coke at much the same level as they had the old one. Surveys indicated that the majority of regular Coke drinkers liked the new flavoring. Three quarters of the respondents said they would buy New Coke again. The big test, however, remained in the Southeast, where Coke was first bottled and tasted https://www.bookofdaystales.com/coca-cola/
Despite New Coke’s acceptance with a large number of Coca-Cola drinkers, many more resented the change in formula and were not shy about making that known — just as had happened in the focus groups. Many of these drinkers were Southerners, some of whom considered Coca-Cola a fundamental part of their regional identity.
Company headquarters in Atlanta began receiving letters and telephone calls expressing anger or deep disappointment. They were joined by some voices from outside the region. Chicago Tribune columnist Bob Greene wrote some widely reprinted pieces ridiculing the new flavor and damning Coke’s executives for having changed it. Comedians and talk show hosts, including Johnny Carson and David Letterman, made regular jokes mocking the switch. Ads for New Coke were booed heavily when they appeared on the scoreboard at the Houston Astrodome. Even Fidel Castro, a longtime Coca-Cola drinker, contributed to the backlash, calling New Coke a sign of American capitalist decadence. Goizueta’s father expressed similar misgivings to his son, who later recalled that it was the only time his father had agreed with Castro, whose rule he had fled Cuba to avoid.
Pepsi-Cola took advantage of the situation, running ads in which a first-time Pepsi drinker exclaimed, “Now I know why Coke did it!” Even amidst consumer anger and several Pepsi ads mocking Coca-Cola’s debacle, Pepsi actually gained very few long-term converts over Coke’s switch, despite a 14% sales increase over the same month the previous year, the largest sales growth in the company’s history. Coca-Cola’s director of corporate communications, Carlton Curtis, realized over time that consumers were more upset about the withdrawal of the old formula than the taste of the new one.
Some Coca-Cola executives had quietly been arguing for a reintroduction of the old formula as early as May. By mid-June, when soft drink sales usually start to rise, the numbers showed that new Coke was leveling among consumers. Executives feared social peer pressure was now affecting their bottom line. Some consumers even began trying to obtain “old” Coke from overseas, where the new formula had not yet been introduced, as domestic stocks of the old drink were exhausted. Over the course of the month, Coca-Cola’s chemists also quietly reduced the acidity level of the new formula, hoping to assuage complaints about the flavor and allow its sweetness to be better perceived (advertisements pointing to this change were prepared, but never used).
In addition to the noisier public protests, boycotts, and bottles being emptied into the streets of several cities, the company had more serious reasons to be concerned. Its bottlers, and not just the ones still suing the company over syrup pricing policies, were expressing concern. Most of them saw great difficulty having to promote and sell a drink that had long been marketed as “The Real Thing”, constant and unchanging, now that it had been changed.
With the company now fearing boycotts not only from its consumers but its bottlers, talks about reintroducing the old formula moved from “if” to “when”. Finally, the Coca-Cola board decided that enough was enough, and plans were set in motion to bring back the old Coke. Coca-Cola executives announced the return of the original formula during the afternoon of July 11, 79 days after New Coke’s introduction. ABC News’ Peter Jennings interrupted General Hospital with a special bulletin to share the news with viewers. On the floor of the U.S. Senate, David Pryor called the reintroduction “a meaningful moment in U.S. history”. The company hotline received 31,600 calls in the two days after the announcement. The new product continued to be sold and retained the name Coca-Cola (until 1992, when it was renamed Coke II), so the original formula was renamed Coca-Cola Classic, and for a short time it was referred to by the public as Old Coke. Now all is back to normal with Coke being Coke and New Coke being history.
Corporate types and business schools will probably argue for decades over Coca Cola’s blunder, with the occasional conspiracy theorist arguing that the whole affair was carefully staged to boost sales (which saw an 8% surge when the old formula was re-introduced). Conspiracy theorists are (almost) always wrong; corporate executives are not that bright, and such a ploy would have been a gigantic gamble. I tend to favor the view that executives were too confident in their market research, especially the taste tests. The taste tests were done by comparing sips of drinks instead of comparing the full context of drinking a whole can of one drink compared to a whole can of another. As an anthropologist, I could have told them that: context is everything. Besides, Coca Cola has a gigantic socio-cultural context, especially in the US South. My wife’s relatives, for example, all born and raised in Kentucky, had social practices around drinking Coke. Her grandmother had a set of glasses with silver holders just for drinking Coca Cola with guests. You change that at your peril.
For today’s recipe I will refer you back to my original post:
The Coca-Cola company maintains an extensive file of recipes using Coke, mostly submitted by readers. There are several recipes for marinades and sauces for grilled or roasted meats, but most of the recipes are for desserts. I have not tried any of them, but by all means browse away to see if anything tickles your fancy: