In the early 1980’s Coca Cola had lost 40% of its market share to Pepsi. Pepsi was outselling Coke in supermarkets and vending machines across the nation. Coke executives knew that they needed to take drastic action and shake the foundations of the soda establishment to make their Pepsi-blue states Coke-red again. In April 1985, New Coke was launched.
To date, Coca Cola’s proprietary formula had been the backbone of its brand. It was trusted and proven, a first principle upon which all else was built. New Coke sought to destroy that foundation. Sure, the can was red, but the contents were something different. The flavor was bigger, bolder, over-the-top. It was canned bombast, loud, unapologetic, just downright insulting to many people’s tastes.
Coke launched massive marketing efforts including coordinated rallies across many major cities. McDonald’s prominently endorsed New Coke by exclusively offering it in restaurants nationwide. At first, people at the rallies appeared to like what they were fed.
Yet within days the backlash began. Thousands of angry letters, phone calls and petitions poured into Coke’s Atlanta headquarters. Concerned citizens’ groups began to organize and unite against New Coke. Prominent journalists condemned the brand’s actions. Even Fidel Castro purportedly spoke out, calling New Coke a sign of American capitalist decadence.
The Coca Cola brand had failed. Customers wanted to restore the way things used to be. This bold, bombastic brand departure brought them too far from home. People demanded a return to normalcy. “Bring back Old Coke!” the masses exclaimed.
In response, Coca Cola Classic was born. Coca Cola Classic wasn’t “Old Coke.” It was better. It wasn’t “new” because its roots stretched deeply into a time past, a time when things were simpler, better. Coke Classic was the carbonated messiah that redeemed the old red and white from one of the biggest brand failures of all time.
Coke Classic was familiar. It was safe. It set off a resurgence of Coke’s market dominance, with Coke products outselling Pepsi two to one by the end of the calendar year. New Coke’s brand failure set the stage for a brand evolution. Coke Classic wasn’t just a return to what was old. It leveraged the timeless elements that were good and true, reinventing them into something transcendent, capable of combatting the new imposter.
About the Author
Brian Tillman is Co-Founder and Principal at Punch Digital Strategies, Inc. A writer and strategist by trade, Brian partners with clients in software, cybersecurity, aerospace and the nonprofit sector to identify high value audiences and write brand messaging that gets results. He is not a political scientist, but he did read a lot of Hobbes once in Liberal Arts school. Contact Brian here.