During the early eighties, Coke was in big trouble. Once the most popular soft drink of the nation, sales were slumping and the market share had dropped to a quarter of previous levels. The famed soda had seemingly lost its magic. Pepsi, meanwhile, had managed to land pop music superstar Michael Jackson as their company spokesperson, which was no easy task. It was the choice for a ‘New Generation’, implying that anyone who drank Coke was probably an old fogie who wore Depends and yelled at teenagers to get off their lawn.
The solution? New Coke! The crafty scientists at Coca-Cola Corporation worked day and night to come up with a revolutionary new formula, one that would finally defeat their most hated enemy and put all those Pepsi executives in their place, and after several months of research, testing, and market design, announced the coming change and unveiled their amazing new product to the masses.
There was just one problem – New Coke tasted like malted battery acid. And while this was great if you needed to dissolve through your prison bars to escape from a maximum-security jail, it wasn’t particularly good for a soft drink. The result was catastrophic: sales plunged dramatically, newspaper columnists ridiculed them horribly, and the company received over 400,000 angry calls and letters which complained of the change. There were also numerous calls for nationwide boycotts and staged protests in which hundreds of bottles of New Coke were emptied out into the streets.
Three months later, Coke executives were thoroughly chastised and stated that the formula would be returning to normal. New Coke would still remain on the shelves, because the taste tests showed that people preferred it more, really, but the older version would now be available as Coca-Cola Classic. This would be renamed to Coke Classic after a few years, and finally, back to Coke. New Coke was dead and buried, with several mounds of concrete shoveled on top, a cautionary tale for the business world.
It has been suggested that all of this was intentional. Coke sales surged after the product switched back, and bad publicity is still publicity, all the same. One would have to be an incredible cynic to believe such a thing, however.