April 23, 1985: Coca-Cola Announces 'New Coke'–And It's a PR Disaster

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Sometimes change isn't good. One of the most infamous marketing flops in corporate history is Coca-Cola’s "New Coke."

Some history: Coca-Cola was at the top of the soft drink industry from its humble beginnings in 1892 through the 1960s. But by 1983, Coke sales had dropped to under 24% of the market share, largely because of competition from competitor Pepsi-Cola.

So, Coca-Cola looked to make a change: Coca-Cola CEO Roberto Goizueta told employees there would be no "sacred cows" in how the company did business, including how it formulated its drinks. Senior executives commissioned a secret project called “Project Kansas” to create a new flavor for Coke.

The Coca-Cola recipe was reformulated to emulate the sweeter taste of rival Pepsi-Cola. But the launch backfired, and many Coke drinkers resented the change in formula and were not shy about making their sentiments known. Many of these drinkers were Southerners, some of whom considered Coca-Cola a fundamental part of their regional identity. Vocal protests and plummeting sales followed. Pepsi operations director Roger took out a full-page ad in The New York Times proclaiming that Pepsi has won the long-running "Cola Wars."

On July 11, 1985, Coca-Cola executives announced the return of the original formula with Coca-Cola Classic. Ironically, Coca-Cola Classic now differed from the original formula in that all bottlers had begun using high fructose corn syrup instead of cane sugar to sweeten the drink.

Today, Coca-Cola’s brand remains strong as it offers more than 350 brands in over 200 countries. Although it survived its "New Coke" Titanic, corporate marketing should learn a lesson or two from the debacle.

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