25 years later: How the 'Net would have prevented New Coke

An exercise in 20-20 hindsight as Coca-Cola marks infamous anniversary

New Coke

Let's rewrite history: It was 25 years ago tomorrow, April 23, 1985, that the world's most famous soft drink company committed arguably the world's most famous product development/marketing gaffe: New Coke.

Fast-forward a quarter of a century: How might the course of carbonated beverage history - not to mention the coursework  of business management schools - have been altered were Coca-Cola executives first considering such a change in 2010, what with the full wisdom and fury of the Internet at their disposal to help decide?

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Might the company have opted to leave well enough alone ... and New Coke on a lab shelf?

Or might New Coke have arrived anyway ... and maybe even thrived.

I'm going to argue for the lab shelf, but feel free to speak otherwise.

There is much disagreement as to what actually caused the 1985 New Coke debacle (including conspiracy theories) but this much appears well established: Coca-Cola the company kept a remarkably tight cap on its bombshell gambit, despite conducting surveys, taste tests and focus groups in which participants were informed that a change in the formula of the iconic soft drink was under consideration. The press was kept clueless until receiving notification of an upcoming announcement a mere four days before New Coke's splashy introduction at New York's Lincoln Center.

Try to imagine such secrecy being maintained today, given the number of survey subjects and focus groupies who would be sprinting to their Facebook pages and Twitter accounts within minutes of learning that Coca-Cola was considering messing with the secret sauce.  Competition in the age of online journalism dwarfs what was at work in 1985. These days we're talking a tweet to wildfire in less time than it takes to down a can of your favorite soft drink. (Who know? Someone at Coca-Cola might even have left a can of New Coke sitting on a bar top.)

In retrospect, this effective cone of silence worked very much against the company in 1985, and, it says here, would not even have been attempted in 2010. Instead, I believe the Coca-Cola of today would have crowd-sourced such a risky and potentially controversial undertaking; massive and long-running online polls (even though they suck), total social media saturation and "Should we do it?" video contests to beat the band. (Don't know which would have been funnier: "Hitler finds out about New Coke" or "Tiger vows to remain faithful.")

New Coke

Involving the public beforehand - openly and on a massive scale -- would have proven to be a pivotal decision.

While it's difficult to imagine Coca-Cola CEO Roberto Goizueta embracing openness in 1985, he's long gone, leaving both the company and this mortal coil in 1997. So, for the purposes of this exercise, we will presume that current CEO Muhtar Kent knows of the Internet.

Goizueta was apparently bound and determined to go through with New Coke ... and it wasn't as though he didn't have supporting data. Remember, New Coke in 1985 did very well in taste tests when pitted against the original recipe and Pepsi. Surveys showed a clear majority were receptive to the idea of a formula change. Focus groups were generally positive, too ... except for a small, extremely vocal, and at times ominously influential minority (10 percent or so) of consumers who considered the very idea sacrilegious.

 These would be your bloggers of 2010 and boy, oh, boy, would they have been whipped into a bubbly lather at the first whiff of what Coca-Cola executives were contemplating. Back in '85, this role was more or less filled by a single guy, Gay Mullins, who founded "Old Cola Drinkers of America" in protest and eventually filed a class-action lawsuit against the company. He became both effective and genuinely famous through his efforts ... and how that happened without the Internet tells me ol' Gay was quite the agitator. What I know for certain is that Mullins would have had a horde of competitors to lead the same charge in 2010 from the very first moment word was leaked (most likely an intentional trial balloon by Coca-Cola).

Then all hell would break loose. Think tea parties with Coca-Cola. Imagine a Jon Stewart or Rush Limbaugh taking up the cause. Heck, imagine Jon Stewart and Rush Limbaugh arm in arm?

After all, it wasn't the taste that doomed New Coke, it was the idea of messing with a 100-year-old piece of Americana that had become as sacred to some - Gay Mullins and his vocal minions - as Mom and apple pie. Identifying and amplifying sentiments of that nature is one of the Internet's most finely honed skills.

Today, the message to Coca-Cola would be unmistakable and the company would be left but with one choice: Shelve New Coke before it ever hits a single store shelf ... and celebrate your victory.

CEO Muhtar's announcement would go something like: "The Coke-adoring public has spoken and we have listened: Long live the one, the only, the king, the original ... Coca-Cola." (Talking Heads background music: "Same as it ever was, same as it ever was ... same ... as ... it ... ever ... was.")

Business school professors would teach lessons about how a company leveraged the "wisdom of the crowds" to not only avoid a monumentally damaging product decision, but to also turn the process into a win-win public relations bonanza.

In other words, Coca-Cola could have avoided all of that trouble if only it had waited for the World Wide Web.

(Update: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Coca-Cola's hometown newspaper, has a story marking the episode's anniversary and notes that the company will soon more fully acknowledge this aspect of its past: "Starting this week, Coca-Cola plans to add to its commemoration of the New Coke episode. Visitors to the World of Coca-Cola in downtown Atlanta can see a confidential document in which Coca-Cola's marketing research team says the new formula got high scores in taste tests -- proof that Coke should strike fast. There's a copy of remarks by then-Chairman Roberto Goizueta, who marked up the speech the night before New Coke's debut. And there's a lawsuit from riled fans of "Old Coke.")  

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