Coke fans called it "Black Tuesday."
On April 23, 1985 — 30 years ago today — the carbonated disaster called New Coke made its debut. Coca-Cola's idea was to make Coke appeal to a younger generation by replacing its signature soda with a sweeter version. It quickly became a national disgrace.
The experiment only lasted a few months before Coke reversed course — on July 10, 1985, it announced it would bring back "Coca-Cola Classic," selling it alongside New Coke. But even though New Coke has gone down as one of the most infamous mistakes in marketing history, most people don't know the real reasons it failed.
New Coke didn't only fail because it tasted too sweet — it failed because the marketing campaigns, business structures, and company culture at Coke doomed it from the beginning.
1) New Coke did taste better, according to 200,000 tests. But only in small doses.
In 1985, one consumer showed her love of old Coke and distaste for the new formula. (Toronto Star/Getty Images)
The problems with New Coke did have a lot to do with taste — because Coca-Cola didn't know how to measure what the ideal taste was.
As Coca-Cola itself recalls, desperate times called for desperate measures. The company was in the midst of the "cola wars" against Pepsi, and for 15 years it had been losing market share to the slightly sweeter soda. That caused a radical response: New Coke.
But Coca-Cola didn't rashly change its signature formula. The company claims to have performed more than 200,000 taste tests before introducing New Coke. In those tests, customers preferred the sweeter formula to the classic one, and that gave CEO Roberto Goizueta the ammunition to make the switch. The problem was that a taste test didn't measure how people drank Coke in real life.
Malcolm Gladwell proposed a compelling explanation in Blink: the taste tests conducted by Coke and by Pepsi didn't represent how consumers actually drank soda. The working theory is that consumers enjoyed the sweeter taste of Pepsi and New Coke in small doses, but in larger quantities (like a two-liter bottle or full can), the extra sweetness was more polarizing.
2) The media was searching for a Gettysburg in the cola wars. The New Coke switch gave it to them.
A vintage Pepsi glass, stealing Coke's vigor. (Shutterstock)
The cola wars had, in theory, begun as soon as Coca-Cola found a formidable competitor. It had that in Pepsi, starting with the Pepsi Challenge ad campaign in 1975, which asked consumers to perform a taste test between Pepsi and Coke. It only intensified as the upstart brand gained market share. When New Coke launched, it showed that Coke was sacrificing a key front in the war — and the media leapt on it.
According to Thomas Oliver's The Real Coke, The Real Story, the marketing salvos fired by Pepsi were paired with a sophisticated PR strategy. In addition to ads trumpeting Pepsi's victorious battle in the cola wars, the soda maker primed reporters to barrage Coke with challenging questions. Before the press conference announcing New Coke, Pepsi called more than 200 reporters with suggested lines of attack.
Though there was genuine consumer distaste for the New Coke formula — Coke's consumer hotline reportedly lit up with thousands of complaints — the media aided the backlash by leaping on stories about frustrated Coke consumers.
Gay Mullins, founder of an organization called Old Cola Drinkers of America, reportedly spent $30,000 to help convince Coke to bring back the original cola, and he earned much more than that in media attention. When he called Coke un-American and complained, "They have taken away my freedom of choice," it made for a better quote than one that might be offered by a satisfied New Coke consumer.
3) The cola wars tapped into the culture wars — and the North/South divide
In 1985, Pepsi symbolized youth and Baby Boomers. Coke represented tradition, in part because of its marketing efforts over the previous 50 years. As noted in The Real Coke, The Real Story, Coca-Cola symbolized the real America.
Coke was the one true "daddy juice"
To pick one example featured in The Real Coke, The Real Story, Rocky Mountain News columnist John Coit called Pepsi "sugar-plum fairy gag juice" while Coke was (the apparently preferable) "daddy juice." When Coit received a case of New Coke, he blasted it as "a lousy imitation of Pepsi."
Some commentators even believed that the Coca-Cola company, the venerable Atlanta institution, had betrayed the South by copying Pepsi. Though Pepsi was founded in North Carolina, by the 1980s it was headquartered in Purchase, New York. The Real Coke, The Real Story notes that Southern bottlers and consumers more vociferously objected to the New Coke taste.
4) Coke had spent millions slamming sweeter colas in ads — and New Coke was sweeter
In the mid-'80s, Bill Cosby was at a peak in popular culture, and he was both a Coke pitchman and aninvestor. But Coke didn't know what to do with him.
Before New Coke, Cosby said how awful Pepsi and sweet drinks were:
After New Coke, his taste suddenly changed:
It reflected the general confusion in Coke marketing — the company had spent the early '80s mocking Pepsi's sweeter taste, priming the public to react negatively when Coke changed its recipe.
5) To preserve market share, the company had to go all in on New Coke
This McDonald's in Germany makes it seem like Coke is a constant. But that's not always the case. (Ulstein Bild/Getty Images)
New Coke was a massive risk, so why didn't it create a separate "New Coke" from the beginning to run alongside the classic version? It didn't have a choice — Coke needed to retain market share for a single drink.
Fountain sales made up a formidable two-thirds of Coke's market, and the presence of Coke in McDonald's and other fountain machines wasn't a foregone conclusion.
Many of the contracts depended on Coke being the top-ranked cola. And if market share for Coca-Cola fell, the company might lose even more ground to Pepsi. If Coke had planned to run New Coke and original Coke side by side, it would have risked splitting its market share and alienating valuable fountain clients.
Later, when Coke reversed course and briefly produced New Coke and Coke at the same time, that's exactly what happened — the company lost market share and prestige to Pepsi by splitting its own market.
6) Coke's CEO couldn't control bottlers or his own company
A Coca-Cola bottling plant in 1950. (Welgos/Stringer/Getty Images)
When Coke changed course, it couldn't do so unilaterally. A large network of independent bottlers had influence over the company, and they helped drag New Coke down. Without the bottlers' support, Coke would lose a key channel for its product, since these franchisees bottled and distributed Coke around the country and world. Though consumer response might have doomed New Coke even without the objection of bottlers, the network of diverse business interests made it almost impossible for Coke to drastically change its formula without a wide consensus.
Constance Hays's The Real Thing: Truth and Power at the Coca-Cola Company describes the problem: bottlers at Coke were partners with Coke in Atlanta, and their business was dependent on "Big Coke" (these bottlers were more influential and independent in the '80s than they are today). As a result, Coke had to keep them happy.
"We did not know what we were selling"
When New Coke started to get negative feedback, bottlers were very angry (some had only learned about the change on the radio). Bottlers received angry customer complaints directly, and a couple of months after New Coke debuted, a group of bottlers traveled to Atlanta to register their complaints. The Coca-Cola Bottlers Association also jumped on board and told Coke to bring back the classic formula.
CEO Goizueta couldn't hold on to such a drastic change in the face of bottlers' protests. That led to the July 10, 1985, announcement that Coca-Cola Classic would return.
Some conspiracy theorists believe New Coke was introduced simply to revive the classic formula's fortunes. But it's more likely that Coke simply didn't realize all the ways it could fail, and what a revision to the classic formula would sacrifice.
As one executive said in The Real Thing, "We did not know what we were selling. We are not selling a soft drink. We are selling a little tiny piece of people's lives." It turned out that piece was a lot harder to take away than Coke originally thought, for more reasons than it ever could have predicted.
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Why was the New Coke a failure? ›
Blind taste tests suggested that consumers preferred the sweeter taste of the competing product Pepsi, and so the Coca-Cola recipe was reformulated. The American public reacted negatively, and New Coke was considered a major failure.How did customers respond to New Coke? ›
New Coke was introduced April 23, 1985. It was a disaster. Coke drinkers responded with unrelenting backlash, a serious revolt and even a boycott. The company's switchboards were soon drowning in nearly 10,000 calls a day from irate customers.What went wrong with Coke in 1985? ›
When the announcement of the return of "old" Coca-Cola was made in July 1985, those hoarding as many as 900 bottles in their basements could stop their self-imposed rationing and begin to drink the product as they always had — as often as they'd like.What mistake did Coca-Cola make in 1985 2 word s? ›
That negative association emerged 30 years ago Thursday, on April 23, 1985, when Coca-Cola Company announced a change to its nearly century-old secret formula. The new Coke would have a smoother, sweeter taste -- similar to Diet Coke, but sweetened with corn syrup.What is the problem of Coca-Cola? ›
The problems faced by Coca-Cola Company are high sugar harmful to health, increase in competitors, plastic bottle waste and water scarcity. These issues will lead to many negative impacts to social and natural environment.What's the difference between old Coke and New Coke? ›
New Coke seems to retain the essential character of the original version in that it, too, imparts faint cocoa-cinnamon overtones and has a balanced, smooth body with no sharpness or overpowering flavor. However, it is sweeter than the original formula and also has a body that could best be described as lighter.What was the initial reason for introducing New Coke into the market? ›
New Coke, reformulated soft drink that the Coca-Cola Company introduced on April 23, 1985, to replace its flagship drink in the hope of revitalizing the brand and gaining market share in the beverage industry.What flavor is the New Coke? ›
Though the flavor of the Marshmello co-created Coke beverage was described as a mix of strawberry and watermelon (both of which are flavors that are very real), Starlight's flavor was marketed as a taste of outer space, and Byte's flavor was reportedly gaming-inspired and described as "the first-ever Coca-Cola flavor ...How much did Coca-Cola lose on New Coke? ›
Coca-Cola has never disclosed how much it lost in the new Coke fiasco, though bottlers told Mr. Meyers of Beverage Digest that they took a hit of $30 million on unwanted concentrate for new Coke. The company also spent $4 million on market testing and taste comparisons with 200,000 consumers.Can you drink 10 year old soda? ›
Carbonated soft drinks or sodas are not perishable, and are safe past the date stamped on the container. Eventually flavor and carbonation will decrease. For best quality, consume unopened diet sodas within 3 months after the date expires; regular sodas within 9 months.
Which is stronger Pepsi or Coke? ›
Scientifically speaking, there is a difference in taste between Coke and Pepsi. Coke is described to have a taste resembling molasses due to its vanilla-raisin flavor while Pepsi is citrus and lemony. Pepsi even consists of a higher amount of sugar and caffeine which makes its flavor stronger and quicker to taste.What did original Coke taste like? ›
Pemberton's original recipe had been doctored slightly by Robinson and Asa Griggs Candler, The Coca-Cola Company's founding president. However, many of the original flavor notes, like vanilla, nutmeg, cinnamon and citrus oils, stayed in the recipe.What does Starlight Coke taste like? ›
Coca-Cola has taken a small step for mankind, introducing a new beverage, Coca-Cola Starlight, whose flavor is as mysterious as the cosmos. According to Eater, astronomers discovered a dust cloud in the Milky Way made up of ethyl formate, the same chemical that gives raspberries their flavor (it also smells of rum).What did Coca-Cola fail to consider before the release of new Coke? ›
The outrage caught Coca-Cola executives by surprise. They had hardly made a rash decision unsupported by data. After all, they had performed 190,000 blind taste tests on U.S. and Canadian consumers. The problem, though, is that the company had underestimated loyal drinkers' emotional attachments to the brand.What is the unethical practices of the company of Coca-Cola? ›
Since the 1990s Coca-Cola has been accused of unethical behavior in a number of areas, in- cluding product safety, anti-competitiveness, racial discrimination, channel stuffing, dis- tributor conflicts, intimidation of union workers, pollution, depletion of natural resources, and health concerns.What Coke does to your stomach? ›
Acid from soda can irritate the stomach lining, and cause heartburn and acid reflux.Does Coke help with constipation? ›
Researchers in Athens have discovered that the bubbly soft drink could effectively remove painful stomach blockages at low cost.What happens if you boil Coca-Cola? ›
Coca-Cola slowly thickens when boiled as a result of the water in the drink evaporating. Once most of the water is gone, the sugar begins to burn. You'll get a similar effect if you boil orange juice or any sugary liquid for long enough.What is the difference between Coke and Cola? ›
"Coke" is used as a name for a particular brand of cola called Coca-Cola. If you mean that particular brand, it is best to say Coke or Coca-Cola. The word cola is a general word meaning any drink like Coca-Cola, including that and other brands.What is the difference between Coke and Coca-Cola? ›
Abbreviation is a natural law of language. 'Coke' is the friendly abbreviation for the trademark Coca-Cola." In 1945, Coca-Cola gave in to the force of its customers and trademarked the nickname. The first advertising slogan to use the word "Coke" appeared in 1948.
What is Coke made of? ›
Here's the list of ingredients in Coca‑Cola: Carbonated water – Approximately 90% of Coca-Cola is water. The carbonated part is purified carbon dioxide, which gives the drink its “bubbles” or “fizz”. Sugar – Coca-Cola Classic's sweet taste (and also some of its mouthfeel) comes from sugar.How much money did Coke lose on New Coke? ›
Coca-Cola never revealed how much money it lost from its short-lived New Coke blunder, but The New York Times reported that, in addition to the $4 million it spent on research and marketing, the company lost roughly $30 million due to unsold New Coke inventory.When was New Coke discontinued? ›
All they can do is defend the heritage they nearly abandoned in 1985.” Despite its poor reception, New Coke continued to be sold for a number of years. In 1992 it was renamed Coke II. However, its market share was miniscule, and the beverage was discontinued in 2002.Does New Coke still exist? ›
We tried New Coke, and here's our honest review. New Coke is back, baby! More than three decades after one of the most controversial new product launches in soda history, Coca-Cola is teaming up with the Netflix hit “Stranger Things” to bring back its failed 1985 cola.Why was Crystal Pepsi a failure? ›
Through a combination of branding issues, corporate sabotage from archrival Coca-Cola (KO), and overall consumer dissatisfaction with the flavor of the product, Crystal Pepsi would become one of the most well-known product flops in history.