Who Killed The New Coke?
Back in June 1985, viewers of the popular soap opera General Hospital were glued to their screens for another explosive episode (the plot was apparently “Frisco quits Teen Time” and we didn’t really care to investigate further). Suddenly, ABC interrupted the show for an urgent news brief! Barely able to wait for the theme music to stop, anchor Peter Jennings solemnly announced that “The old taste of Coca-Cola is coming back.” At last, America’s national nightmare was over. The demon New Coke was dead!
New Coke had been launched in a blaze of publicity just 80 days earlier. And by all accounts, the launch went great! Sales shot up and surveys showed that customers loved the new flavor. Yet in less than three months, New Coke managed to become the biggest joke in America, the equivalent of drinking out of a mop bucket you found in the Port Authority. The ridicule was so bad that the company had to perform one of the most humiliating climb downs in marketing history and reintroduce the old Coke flavor.
But just what did kill New Coke? Was it a vast right-wing conspiracy? Pepsi spies planting negative stories? Could it even have been a sinister plot by Coke itself, who always intended for the new taste to fail in order to boost sales of classic Coke? Or did the soda just taste like hummingbird piss? People have literally been arguing over this for the past 35 years, so it looks like it’s up to us to settle things once and for all. So strap in and enjoy the ride, because we’re willing to risk our lives to solve this mystery.
New Coke Was Launched In A Desperate Attempt To Stay Number One
New Coke had been born several years earlier, when executives at Coca-Cola -- the massively successful Fortune 500 company -- apparently became concerned that people might hate their product. Coke was an American icon, but sales had been quietly dropping for years. Meanwhile, arch-rivals Pepsi had massively increased their market share thanks to ad campaigns like the Pepsi Challenge, a series of blind taste tests which revealed that customers loved the taste of Pepsi, whereas they tended to react to Coke by doing a spit-take and screaming “oh God, dozens of rats must have died in this one!" As supermarket sales continued to fall, it became clear that Coke might be passed by Pepsi as America’s favorite soft drink.
It was a horrible fate, and Coke executives were presumably about 20 minutes into some kind of mass suicide when somebody suggested changing the recipe. After all, Pepsi was sweeter than Coke and everyone seemed to love it. So why not just make Coke sweeter? Even better, the company already had a sweeter formula ready to go, having accidentally stumbled on it while trying to invent Diet Coke. Taste tests revealed that consumers consistently preferred the new taste to either Pepsi or the old Coke, making them the first tests in years that didn’t end with an enraged Coke executive punching through a two-way mirror and beating an entire focus group unconscious with a two-liter of Mr. Pibb.
Coke was soon gearing up for an all-out launch of the new taste, with internal documents declaring “in its size, scope and boldness, [New Coke] is not unlike the Allied invasion of Europe in 1944 … [New Coke] can not, must not fail.” That sounds like the speech a grizzled general gives you before you airdrop in to fight Godzilla, but it shows how seriously executives were taking the launch. Obviously it’s not a good sign when your CEO is standing in front of a giant American flag, wearing a mech suit that replaces his blood with New Coke, screaming “This is the future! God is dead, New Coke rules in heaven!” But it does show a certain level of commitment. Most daringly of all, the company decided to totally replace the old Coke, which was taken out of production to make way for the new formula. From now on, if you wanted a Coke, you’d drink New Coke or you’d drink nothing.
Soda Wars: Pepsi Strikes Back
New Coke debuted in April 1985, and at first everything went great. Sales shot up by eight percent overnight and the company was flooded with calls praising the new taste. One experienced soda connoisseur (a random child) declared it “the best Coke I’ve ever had, it’s just delicious!” Other people said even nicer things, but nobody could understand them, since their mouths were full of delicious New Coke. Since it was the 1980s, executives were probably just about to celebrate with some kind of Coke and coke party when the first cracks started to show.
Possibly the first to realize that this whole thing could potentially be a disaster were the bosses at Pepsi, who reacted with the kind of malicious glee usually reserved for small children discovering an unguarded box of fireworks right before Bring Your Mom’s Antique China To School Day. On the morning New Coke launched, Pepsi gave all its employees the day off, then took out newspaper ads across the country declaring “The other guy blinked.” A Pepsi spokesman later said that “there was dancing in the hallways. The mood was jubilation. We felt we had won a major battle.'' And it’s definitely a good day at work when your chief competitor messes up so badly that your whole floor spontaneously rises out of their cubicles, silently does a synchronized “Thriller” dance, and then just goes home for the rest of the day.
Behind the scenes, Pepsi execs were a little worried about New Coke, so they deployed their elite team of soda assassins to make sure the public turned against it. Before New Coke was even officially announced, Pepsi started secretly slipping reporters hostile questions about the new taste. The company ultimately contacted “more than 200 reporters with suggested lines of attack.” And just days after the launch, Pepsi flooded the airwaves with ads featuring an apparently devastated girl asking “Why'd you do it, Coke? First you said you were the Real Thing. Then you said you were It. So why did you change?” Which is a pretty good ad, although writing tearful breakup letters to a soda company is rarely considered a component of a healthy lifestyle.
Behind the scenes, Pepsi may have been hatching their most dastardly plot yet. If Warren Buffett is to be believed, Pepsi executives launched a secret plot to analyze and recreate the recipe for the old Coke. Their plan was to make a few tweaks and then launch a new cola featuring the classic Coke taste, stealing all Coke’s former customers in the process. Sadly, New Coke didn’t last long enough for the plan to go ahead, meaning we missed an incredible world where Pepsi and Coke suddenly switched tastes. Presumably this would have led to an escalating series of rebrands, ending with Coke tasting like Fanta, Pepsi tasting like Mountain Dew, and Dr. Pepper tasting Uncle Fyodor’s Premium-Grade Cabbage Wine.
The Media Went All In On The Outrage
Despite the positive taste test results, a significant portion of Americans reacted like Coke had replaced the old flavor with a combination of clam juice and hog sneezes. Bottlers were surprised to find trucks screeching up outside, with local soda fans demanding as many cases of old Coke as possible. The company’s Atlanta headquarters were soon under siege from irate consumers, with Coke’s own website recalling how people “seemed to hold any Coca-Cola employee—from security officers at our building to their neighbors who worked for Coke—personally responsible for the change.” Even the CEO was shocked to receive letters addressed to “Chief Dodo, Coca-Cola,” although he was mostly annoyed about the fact that they actually got delivered to him. Do you know how bad things have to get before the postal service is brutally owning you?
And the outrage only grew from there. A delivery driver in Georgia was surprised to find himself under attack from an old lady, who started beating him about the head with her umbrella while screaming that the new soda “tastes like shit!” Another regular Coke buyer wrote to the company asking if it could still be used as a douche. In Atlanta, protestors marched through the streets, waving signs reading “Our Children Will Never Know Refreshment” (an unrefreshed childhood is such a terrible fate). Meanwhile, Time magazine spoke to a businessman with a six-bottle a day habit, who had gone through his entire stash of old Coke and was now frantically driving around small towns in rural North Carolina, desperately seeking an untouched supply. And it’s not a great situation when a farmer can’t even pull out an old bottle of Coke without some guy in a Mercedes screeching up and whispering “I’d like to make you an indecent proposal.”
Coke insisted that sales were up and the majority of customers were happy with the new flavor. Executives also rejected some of the most common complaints, including that New Coke was less bubbly, declaring that “there is zero difference in carbonation between the old and new.” Which was probably true, but when people say they don’t like your product, you can’t really just go “wow, sorry to hear you’re a pervert who gets off on being wrong about stuff” and expect them to change their minds. And while there were doubtless many people who loved the new taste, they didn’t really show up in the media, since someone quietly enjoying a beverage doesn’t make for great TV. Whereas it’s very entertaining to watch a guy in Seattle pouring New Coke down a sewer drain and promising to file a class-action lawsuit against the company.
As the media focused more and more on the outrage, New Coke started to become a punchline on late-night talk shows. Regardless of how the soda actually tasted, it was soon common knowledge that drinking New Coke was the equivalent of painting “Termites Rule!” on your tongue and then jamming it down the nearest anthill.
Southern Conservatives Lost Their Minds Over The Change
After an early jump, sales of New Coke soon started to fall, although there was an interesting geographical split. While sales remained fairly stable in the northern US, they absolutely cratered in the South. According to Mother Jones (the magazine, not some weird old lady we know), that’s because the backlash against New Coke was particularly strong amongst southern conservatives, who saw it as wimpy northern liberals ruining a beloved southern brand. The University of Mississippi deployed some kind of professor of whining to call it an “intrusion on tradition” that “southerners won’t like, regardless of how it tastes.” Which was probably accurate, although for some reason nobody was rushing to adopt “I don’t care how much I like it, I hate it” as a slogan.
An Alabama newspaper went even further and pointed out that Coke’s chairman was of Cuban descent, implying that the whole thing must be a sinister communist plot against America, comparable to the time Chairman Mao personally infiltrated Burger King and persuaded them to raise the price of the Whopper by a nickel. (Ironically, one of the angriest people about the switch was noted Coke fan Fidel Castro, who declared New Coke a symbol of American decadence.)
Before long, conservative columnists were absolutely vibrating with rage, with one writer calling it a symbol of latte-sipping yuppies taking over America, spitting “have a sweeter Coca-Cola with your green pasta, top it off with a frozen tofu cone, then put on a video and do your aerobics to a modem of synthesized quadri-sound.” And that definitely has the cadence of an insult, although we’re not sure what a “tofu cone” is, or why somebody would want to do aerobics right after eating, or why this apparent jazzercise-loving health nut would choose to drink Coke at all. But you get the point -- all your grandpa’s worst friends were mad as hell and they didn’t need a reason why.
But Was It All A Sinister Coke Conspiracy?
As April turned to May, America was increasingly in the grips of soda madness. One executive lost 10 pounds from stress after monitoring the complaints hotline for a few days, saying “they talk as if Coca-Cola had just killed God,” even though it was definitely RC Cola that did that. We’d make fun of Coke customers freaking out over a minor product change, but most of us have to be retrieved from a survivalist compound in the mountains every time Chrome pushes out a new update, so maybe we shouldn’t judge. But in Coke’s case, the pressure actually worked. Just 80 days after their triumphant launch, Coke made a humiliating climb down and announced the old flavor was coming back.
Or was it a climb down at all? Old Coke’s return was greeted with jubilation, with calls flooding in from across the country congratulating the company on making the right decision. Sales, which had flagged for years, promptly shot up, allowing Coke to gradually rebuild its lead over Pepsi. As a result, a conspiracy theory sprung up claiming that Coke had planned this all from the beginning, deliberately introducing a disgusting replacement in order to remind Americans how much they loved Coke. Then all they had to do was bring the old taste back, before kicking their feet up and watching the money roll in.
It’s a compelling theory, but there remains one key problem, which is that the company really did not want to give up on New Coke. They actually kept it as the main “Coke” for years, marketing the old flavor as “Coke Classic.” It was only in the early '90s, when “Coke” was being massively outsold by Coke Classic, that they finally gave up and restored the original taste to its place of honor. Generally speaking, guys who are deliberately throwing fights aren’t still standing in the ring seven years later screaming “I can still take him!” Seriously, the company was comparing this launch to D-Day, there’s no way they could just fake that kind of megalomania.
Ultimately, It Was A Bad Idea
For all the different theories about who killed New Coke, there’s one compelling suspect we shouldn’t rule out: New Coke itself. The product was a reaction to the unfortunate fact that Pepsi almost always beats Coke in blind taste tests. With New Coke, the company finally had a product that could always triumph over Pepsi -- but that still doesn’t mean it was a better drink. Frankly, it tasted like the inside of your mouth after a three-day mead bender. It tasted like waking up next to a honey bee and realizing you may have downloaded the wrong version of Bumble. It tasted like the grease trap at the fudge factory. It tasted pretty bad.
The thing about blind tests is that they mostly involve taking a sip of each drink and then deciding which you like better. Under these conditions, the sweeter drink will win most of the time, since it makes more of an immediate impression. Pepsi is sweeter than Coke, just as New Coke was sweeter than Pepsi. But people don’t just take one sip of a drink and move on with their lives. Over time, many customers found New Coke was simply too sweet and overpowering, missing the bitter notes in regular Coke. The company even tried frantically adding more acid notes to save the drink, but as every Batman villain learns, there are some things you just can’t solve with acid.
So what killed New Coke? Well, there was definitely an element of cultural rejection by conservatives, always on the lookout for something to get purple-faced with rage about. And Pepsi’s sneaky schemes definitely didn’t help (with anything except our respect for the surprisingly ruthless Pepsi marketing department, that is). But ultimately the problem was more fundamental. Maybe when you have a product that’s been selling like hotcakes since the 19th century, it’s not a good idea to just throw the whole thing in the garbage overnight. Still, given the massive outrage, at least we can be sure that Coke learned their lesson and won’t be making any more sudden flavor changes.
Follow Alex on Twitter.