Harold Burson’s role in the infamous New Coke launch began when his phone rang a few days after Christmas, 1984.

“He called me at home, which was very unusual,” the co-founder of what is today the world’s largest public relations firm, Burson-Marsteller, recalled last fall during an employee event at Coca-Cola headquarters in Atlanta. 

The voice on the other end of the line was his client and close confidante, Coca-Cola Chairman and CEO Roberto Goizueta.

“He said, 'I want you in my office first thing on the first day of the New Year.’ I asked if he could tell me what it was about, and he said ‘No, and I don’t want you to tell anyone you’re coming down here.’”

Goizueta, Coke’s first non-American CEO and the first with a technical/engineering background, had made his mark early in his tenure at the helm through a series of gutsy moves. In 1982, he spearheaded the wildly successful launch of Diet Coke, the first-ever extension of the closely guarded Coca-Cola Trademark. He also made the decision to step outside the company’s core business with the acquisitions of Columbia Pictures and Sterling Vineyards. Both deals – while ultimately profitable – were initially seen as risky by many. 

“Roberto didn’t believe in sacred cows,” retired Coke archivist Phil Mooney recalled. “At the time, Diet Coke was seen as a huge risk inside the company because many felt the Coca-Cola trademark should be reserved for the flagship brand.”

What was on Goizueta's mind in late 1984 was far bigger and bolder. When Burson arrived at Coke HQ in Atlanta, Goizueta walked him through a series of charts.

“The first had two lines – one red, and one blue,” Burson recalls, motioning with his hands. “The blue line started down here and was coming up gradually, and the red line started up here and was on the way down. By the early '90s, if the trend held, the two lines would cross, and Coca-Cola would no longer be the best-selling soft drink in the U.S.”

After the windup, Goizueta delivered the pitch.

“He said, ‘We’re going to change the formula of Coca-Cola,’” Burson recalled.

Harold Burson
Harold Burson works the phones in his New York office in the early-1980s.

With its primary competitor quickly gaining ground, Coke was faced with two options: Change its marketing or change its flagship product.

“I think what influenced Roberto the most was that he was a chemical engineer. He was in charge of the technology,” Burson said. “And just like a carpenter thinks a hammer and a nail can solve every problem, he thought jiggling the formula was the right solution.”

A small task force was assigned to prep for an April rollout. Burson was the lone non-employee who knew about the stealth plan, which included packaging, branding, advertising, PR and more. In those first few weeks, Goizueta leaned on Burson for advice and counsel, pressing him to spot holes in the blueprint. 

“It was the greatest trust anyone has ever ever placed in me,” he said. “He’d ask me, ‘What’s my Achilles Heel?’ What can go wrong?’ And I said, ‘I think you’re most vulnerable on whether or not your research really reflects the views of the people.’”

A blind sip test of more 100,000 consumers nationwide favored New Coke over the then 99-year-old original. But what the studies didn’t show was the emotional bond consumers felt with their Coke – a beloved drink and brand they didn’t want anyone tampering with. 

“They did not know how proprietary the public felt about Coca-Cola,” said Burson.

Goizueta approved a second round of taste tests, which delivered similar results and, thereby, reinforced the decision to launch what would be known as New Coke.

The Burson-Marsteller team’s PR strategy included sending 12-packs of Coke to every major newsroom in the country and all 535 members of Congress. A high-profile press conference was planned for Tuesday April 23, 1985 in New York, but Beverage Digest leaked the news the Friday before. By the weekend, the story has reached the mainstream media.

“Some were afraid it would kill our press conference,” Burson said, “but I said it would make it even more newsworthy.”

Harold Burson
Burson Marsteller Co-Founder Harold Burson at Coca-Cola headquarters, September 2014.

The event at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre inside Lincoln Center didn’t exactly go as planned, however. Production delays prevented the team from being able to serve journalists New Coke in its proper packaging. “We had to serve the media about three ounces of lukewarm New Coke in a flimsy plastic cup,” Burson said. “That didn’t do us very much good.”

Neither did the fact that Coke struggled to clearly describe the taste of its new offering.

“No one could come up with a really good definition of what the difference in the taste was,” Burson said. “One reason was that Roberto didn’t want to use the word ‘sweet’ or ‘sweetness’ because he felt if we did we’d be desecrating the product that had made this company great. We got questioned pretty hard on that at the press conference.”

Newspaper coverage of the launch was neutral, but TV reporters showed little mercy. “They killed us!” Burson said. “They took these man-on-the-street interviews… where if they had six people talking, five said ‘They can’t do this!’ or ‘It’s the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard!’”

Negative sentiment snowballed in the weeks that followed. The New Coke launch unleashed an avalanche of calls, letters and protests. Loyalist clubs formed almost overnight, and fans from coast to coast hoarded and even scalped cases of original Coke. 

Eventually, Coke listened to its fans and made the decision to bring back the original formula after only 79 days – on July 11, 1985. Coca-Cola President Don Keough was tapped to deliver the news to the public via a prime-time TV commercial. 

Burson counseled Keough to be humble and apologetic. In the now-legendary press conference announcing the return of Coca-Cola, Keough read letters from angry fans and delivered more than a few classic lines such as this one:

“Some critics will say Coca-Cola has made a marketing mistake, and some cynics will say that we planned the whole thing. The truth is we’re not that dumb and we’re not that smart.”

Sales of Coca-Cola classic surged, restoring the brand as the frontrunner in the cola wars and affirming a truth countless marketers continue to learn and relearn – that consumers, not companies, own the world’s most cherished brands.

“My feeling is that if that episode had not happened, Coca-Cola would not be in the position it is today,” Burson concluded. “I like to say we got a hole-in-one after the ball hit the tree,”