Coke Zero re-formulation: Is this New Coke all over again?

Remember when Coca-Cola almost lost its empire and angered thousands of Americans back in 1985? Pepperidge Farm remembers…


Quick background for those of you unfamiliar with it: In the years leading up to 1985, Coca-cola and Pepsi had a very publicly unhealthy relationship – something along the lines of McDonalds and Burger King or Kanye West and Taylor Swift – the type of very tense, very public feud that takes up a lot of both parties’ time but propels them to fame by increasing their awareness in the public eye. While many marketing experts look back and argue that the ‘Cola war’ contributed to consumers’ awareness and even liking of cola beverages, the brands didn’t see it that way at the time. When Pepsi conducted its blind taste experiment and revealed that consumers preferred their brand over the classic coke, Coca-Cola decided to discontinue the beloved product and replace it with an improved formula – New Coke. Disaster ensued. Consumers all over the United States ran to the shops to buy their last supply of the drink, angry letters were written, rallies and protests around Coca-Cola HQ were an everyday thing. People went absolutely mental. In retrospect, there were two colossal flaws to Coca-Cola’s thinking: 1) you don’t need to please everyone as a brand. In fact, strong feelings towards your brand are much more beneficial than a diluted, “everyone sort of likes me” approach. Passion is what drives loyalty and purchase, and we don’t tend to be passionate about mild things. 2) The test didn’t mimic the conditions of the real world because, guess what, consumers don’t shop blindfolded. While in a blind test they seemed to prefer Pepsi, fans of Coke told a different story – the brand was so strong that the perceived taste of the two beverages was completely skewed (sensational transference, check it out). The market was speaking but Coca-cola wouldn’t listen and Pepsi successfully created a problem where there wasn’t

Now, why is this relevant? Coca-Cola ended up discontinuing New Coke and reintroducing the old one as “Coca Cola Classic” (how brilliant is that?!), so all should be well and good, right? Well… yes. If they didn’t keep making similar mistakes. Enter the new “Taste the feeling” campaign, particularly their claim that Coke Zero now has a better, more coke-like flavour. Don’t get me wrong – I think the “Taste the Feeling” slogan is a strike of genius (rational plus emotional appeal? ding ding ding) but why are we changing tastes again? Coke Zero was not designed to appeal to the consumers of normal coke, it is for dieting people (men, actually, which is why the label is black as opposed to the “Coke Light” shade of silver). It makes me want to cry out – are we doomed to make the same mistakes over and over again? Why this need to please everybody? Since when have brands been slaves of everyone and their aunt? Most importantly, why do I keep wasting my time and marketing budget researching, segmenting and targeting my audiences if the point is to please everyone? By listening to the voices of those who are NOT Coke Zero customers, Coca Cola is neglecting the current ones. For example, I am not a huge fan of fizzy drinks in general but Coke Zero just gets me – it’s not too sweet, it has a certain bite to it and sometimes I feel like it might be a bit fizzier than the original but I don’t mind (because I stir it out anyway – I know, what a heathen). My point is I actually like the taste of Coke Zero, and I know a lot of people like me. Maybe not as many as the ones who love normal Coke but isn’t that the point of different products and SKU’s in the first place? Why have different products if you’re trying to make them all similar and like the “original”?


Which brings me to my second point: Doesn’t this just tell the consumer “hey, here is a worse version of your favourite product. Almost like you like it! Wanna try?”. For regular folk who simply like the taste of Coke (regular or Zero), doesn’t this just heighten the perception that Coke Zero is Coca Cola’s inferior cousin? Let’s be honest – the health argument is not enough for me, soda is unhealthy, period. True health freaks won’t go anywhere near the stuff. Plus if your new product is so great tasting but with zero sugar, why not discontinue the original one then? I will repeat myself but I can’t stress this enough – consumers do not shop blindfolded! True normal coke fans will always perceive Coke Zero as watered down and “just not the real deal” and you will lose the actual Coke Zero fans. I’m really curious to see how this impacts not just short-term sales but brand perception in the near future – there’s definitely a danger that this New Coke Zero won’t please anyone and might actually anger a lot of people. I’m just saying – wouldn’t hurt anyone to read ‘Positioning’ by Al Ries and Jack Trout…

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