This Month in Crisis: Celebrating a Marketing Disaster?

April 23, 1985 is a date that will live in marketing – and beverage – infamy.

We speak, of course, of the launch of New Coke.

Coca-Cola’s executives didn’t just wake up one day and decide to change the formula of the world’s best selling soft drink “just because.” Coke’s market share was slipping, and very smart people did a lot of very careful market research in coming up with this idea on revitalizing its sales.

Test tastes and focus groups pointed them in the right direction. Cola drinkers did indeed prefer New Coke over both Pepsi and what would come to be known as Coca-Cola Classic.

What Coke’s leadership failed to take into account, though, was that Coke wasn’t just a beverage. It was a brand, a lifestyle choice, even, some argue, a matter of regional pride and tradition.

The rest is history. Consumers revolted; they hoarded “old Coke;” they wrote nasty letters to Coke headquarters. One can only imagine what might have happened if Twitter was around in 1985…

Within 79 days, the company reversed course and brought back the original formula, now dubbed Coca-Cola Classic. New Coke didn’t actually go away completely – it was actually being sold as late as 2002.

What can we learn from the Great Cola Crisis of 1985?

First, the most successful companies are more than the products or services they sell. They have a bond, an emotional connection, with their customers. Breaking that bond – no matter how well intentioned – can backfire spectacularly.

Second, Coca-Cola responded to its customer base. It didn’t dig its heels in, or cite all the market research it had done, or try to convince drinkers that “give it time, you’ll learn to love it.” Company leaders gave consumers what they wanted – and, not incidentally, accomplished its original goal of driving more sales.

As the team discusses in Episode 3 of the Under Fire podcast, a crisis almost always produces an opportunity. Coca-Cola survived the crisis, took that opportunity, and sold a ton of Cokes.