Nearly 30 years ago this week, The Coca Cola Company made what is widely considered one of the biggest marketing mistakes of all time: they changed the formula for Coke.
Under the leadership of then-new CEO Roberto Goizueta, the company responded to Pepsi-Cola’s rise to prominence by toying with the idea of a sweeter formula that would appeal to younger soft drink consumers.
After a lengthy testing process, most research indicated the new drink would be well-received. But when the new soda was launched on April 23, 1985, the response was anything but positive.
Despite decent sales numbers, a loud group of brand defectors spoke out against “New Coke.” The company received hundreds of thousands of letters and phone calls and, before the summer was over, they’d reversed the decision and gone back to the old formula.
It was quite the kerfuffle and their biggest mistake might have been telling anyone about the change, Ronald Alsop wrote for the Wall Street Journal in 1985.
Some marketing experts speculate that Coke might have been better off to change the formula without announcing it to the world. "'The real thing' has always been Coke's best strategy, but not Coke is throwing away its birthright and telling the public the real thing isn't so real anymore," says Al Ries, an ad agency executive and co-author of a book called "Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind."
Reasoning like that won’t do anything good for confidence in a company’s transparency, but the point is a good one. After all, what Coke drinkers don’t know can’t hurt them. Unfortunately, Goizueta and the company didn’t think of that and gave us all an example of what not to do when toying with a beloved product or brand.