I realize that nostalgia for the 1980s is a big thing these days, but I hope that Coca-Cola isn’t taking it too far.
The soft drink behemoth has announced that it is changing the name and recipe of Coke Zero, and renaming it as “Coke Zero Sugar.” My immediate reaction was to think back to when I was a kid.
It was 1985, and my older brother was a huge fan of Coke. We didn’t get to drink soda all the time, but when we did, there was never any chance of him picking anything other than Coke. So when Coca-Cola rolled out its New Coke, he was anxious to try it.
You know how you sometimes remember the most insignificant things in the greatest detail? This is absolutely one of those things for me. I will never, ever forget the look on his face as he took the first drink. It went from excitement to confusion to outright disgust in the span of about three seconds.
Of course, he was far from alone, because New Coke ended up being a PR disaster for Coke. When Fidel Castro is criticizing the new formula — and is on the same side as most Americans — then something has gone horribly wrong.
To Coca-Cola’s credit, they didn’t dig in their heels on the New Coke fiasco; they announced within three months that they’d be switching back to the old formula, to much praise from just about everyone. I know my brother was certainly happy to hear the news.
But here’s the funny thing: If New Coke was such a disaster, which we all remember it to be, then how is Coca-Cola still such a powerhouse in the beverage industry? After all, messing with your most iconic brand can be a really bad idea.
The answer lies in how Coca-Cola handled the fallout from the new formula being unpopular. Instead of saying “too bad. Deal with it,” the company quickly acknowledged consumer complaints and ultimately conceded that it had made a mistake by tinkering with the iconic flavor of Coke. In reading the announcement of the Coke Zero change, one thing I noticed was the company’s emphasis on how they are making Coke Zero Sugar taste more like Coke.
I would imagine that most of you — even if you don’t operate at the scale of Coca-Cola — have faced something similar to the New Coke situation, with or without the fallout. Companies change recipes and ingredients all the time, and for the most part, consumer reaction is muted, because it still tastes roughly the same or even better. But occasionally, you’ll still see stories about a recipe or ingredient change that backfired.
The good news is that Coca-Cola has provided a pretty good road map for how to handle these kinds of things. Accept customer feedback, be transparent, and don’t be afraid to switch back quickly if it’s readily apparent that the new thing is failing. Oh, and above all: Tread very lightly the next time you make a change.