Thirty years ago this week, we introduced New Coke with no shortage of hype and fanfare. And it did succeed in shaking up the market. But not in the way it was intended.
Safe to say, from this vantage point, that New Coke taught The Coca-Cola Company some valuable lessons. First: don’t mess with something that can’t be improved. Second: the people who enjoy our brands ultimately own them.
Many still ask: if we valued the Secret Formula of Coca-Cola enough to keep it in a bank vault, why would we consider changing it? A very good question.
Part of the issue was seeing our flagship beverage lose ground in the face of intense competition. Meanwhile, our very extensive and secretive research showed that people preferred the taste of New Coke.
The research, however, was based almost entirely on sip tests—a comparison of sips, not entire beverages. Which made it deeply flawed. And we failed to understand or factor into our decision-making the intense connections between the people who loved Coca-Cola and the brand itself.
When we launched New Coke, our company called it “the boldest single marketing move in the history of the packaged goods business.”
Bold, yes. But not well-received. We received 7,000 phone calls of protest. Which was a lot of feedback for the times. Imagine if there had been social media: bloggers shouting from the digital rooftops, flash mobs jamming the beverage aisles, our websites melting down.
Frankly, we would have deserved it. Because we drew a mustache on the Mona Lisa. We broke faith with Coca-Cola’s fans. And we will never intentionally do so again.
The second lesson becomes more obvious on a daily basis. Consumers take their brands personally—and seriously. And now more than ever, our brands are owned by the people who enjoy them.
It was a lesson we should have known long before 1985. After all, The Coca-Cola Company didn’t coin the term “Coke.” That name was created by our fans and widely used by 1900. Our ads, meanwhile, urged people not to use nicknames, which could “encourage substitution.” Four decades later, in 1941, our people embraced the term “Coke.”
Today, we’re striving to build a consumer-focused mindset across our business.
- Our next-generation fountain, Coca-Cola Freestyle, offers consumers more than 100 drink choices and endless personalization.
- Keurig Kold, which debuts this year, will allow people to make Coca-Cola and our other beverages at home.
- Share a Coke replaces our brand name with consumer names.
- We reintroduced SURGE in 2014 after passionate fans organized online.
- And we put people in the driver’s seat with the many choices we offer in beverages, serving sizes and calorie options.
All of this is happening at a time when consumer voices are louder than ever. In 1985, companies had much greater say in brand messages. The web and social media have changed this dramatically. Today, the old hope for brand loyalty is just the level of entry. The goal now is brand love. And the prize is brand advocacy.
We no longer control—if we ever did—the conversation about our brands. But we must be part of it. So our people engage with consumers online. We listen, we analyze, we respond, generating real-time digital content 365 days a year. This conversation is part of the future of marketing—a way to break through the wall of noise and cynicism to reach consumers on a one-to-one basis.
The Coca-Cola Company has changed a lot in 30 years. We offer more brands and more products in more places. We’re listening more intently to consumers. And we have more ways to connect with them, most of which we could not have imagined three decades ago.
Even now, however, we’re still talking about New Coke and its lessons, which become clearer with each passing anniversary.
Muhtar Kent is Chairman and CEO of The Coca-Cola Company. Follow him on Twitter @MuhtarKent.
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