We have all experienced it—dates and events that define a moment in our lives. We recount stories and experiences with passion and detailed description. For example, current college students might have grown up with hearing stories of the assassination of JFK or John Lennon from their parents. Or, newcomers to western North Carolina will definitely hear stories of the Blizzard of ’93 from those who lived through it.
However, no other date in U.S. history is more significant than April 23, 1985*. Two words: New Coke. It was a Tuesday, and in Atlanta, Georgia, a warm breeze wafted through the city. According to The Farmer’s Almanac that day, the heat rose to 82.9 degrees Fahrenheit…but temperatures were about to skyrocket! John Pemberton concocted Coca-Cola, a drink patented as an “esteemed brain tonic and intellectual beverage,” in 1886 in a small drugstore near Atlanta, Georgia. Fast forward 125 years and the Coca-Cola Company has over 3500 world-wide products, is available in over 200 countries, and reaches over 1 million people per quarter through social media today. That remarkable business success almost came crashing down in late April 1985 with the announcement that the Coca-Cola Company would be altering the trademarked formula amid slipping sales. In attempts to add some energy into soda sales, Coca-Cola decided to re-brand the classic Coke formula as a sweeter, smoother soda in attempts to compete with the rise of PepsiCo’s Pepsi-Cola and the “new generation.”
The idea to redevelop the secret soda formula did not come lightly. The Coca-Cola Company conducted over 200,000 consumer taste tests, with the majority stating they preferred the new taste. What the company did not account for was the cultural identity tied to Coca-Cola. It was not a mere soda, fizzy and refreshing, but an icon of all things American…just like apple pie, baseball, and Chevrolet. For the next 79 days, response to New Coke was overwhelming and heard from every corner of the nation. The company’s customer service number, 800-GET-COKE, was inundated with complaints—receiving roughly 1500 calls a day compared with 400 a day before New Coke. Company employees, ranging from CEO to janitorial staff, were held accountable for the atrocious blunder. Disgruntled consumers formed protest groups, some to demand a return of the classic taste and some to honor a fallen icon. The Old Cola Drinkers of America recruited over 100,000 supporters in efforts to bring back the traditional formula. And, much like the recent aftermath of Hostess announcing the end of Twinkies, dedicated Coca-Cola customers began hoarding the classic soda in basements and closets.
Finally, on July 11, 1985, The Coca-Cola Company announced the return of “old” Coke, under the name Coca-Cola Classic. New Coke did not initially fade into obscurity but was instead marketed alongside Coke Classic with a very separate marketing campaign aimed at a younger generation of cola drinkers. New Coke’s name eventually changed to Coke II in 1992. By 1998, Coke II could only be found in small, scattered groceries in the Midwest and by 2002 was discontinued altogether in the United States.
To learn more about New Coke, the Coca-Cola Company, or other awesome things available at the library–come check us out!
*okay, so maybe it’s not the most significant date in U.S. History…but it’s up there.
Isdell, Edward N. Inside Coca-Cola: a CEO’s Life Story of Building the World’s Most Powerful Brand. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2011.
Ross, Michael E. “It Seemed Like a Good Idea at The Time: New Coke, 20 Years Later, and Other Marketing Fiascoes.” NBCNews.com, 22 April 2005. Web. 16 April 2013. <http://www.nbcnews.com/id/7209828/ns/us_news/t/it-seemed-good-idea-time/#.UW1rWrVwooI>