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Branding & Understanding | Brand Imprint & the New Coke Saga

By Rory Witt    |    November 20, 2015

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As we covered previously through the wise words of the Kenny Rogers Gambit there are gains to be had in following a clear strategy with your Online Marketing. Here we look further into how important Brand Imprint is to forming your game-plan and what to do when doesn’t go according to that plan.

Brand Imprint can be more important than the product itself.

I've seen that same look in the eyes just before a bar fight starts
I’ve seen that same look in a man’s eyes just before a bar fight starts

Understanding your Brand’s Imprint is vital, because a solid brand will take on a life of its own. Once a Brand is established, changes to it must be conducted very carefully to ensure its well received.

This is down to the Product being good or interesting and otherwise selling itself right?

Not always. It’s not just about having an engaging product, think of Coke vs Pepsi.

“That’s ridiculous, how can I compare my brand to Coke or Pepsi!” you ask.

They are both drinks, they both do the same thing and arguably taste similar. But consumers are brand loyal to the point where they would pass drinking one over the other if their brand wasn’t available. Understandable if the products were radically different but it goes beyond differences in taste.

Their Brand’s however, are the differentiator. Santa Claus is red and white in public consciousness largely because of Coke marketing him in the brand colors. Previously he had been depicted in yellow, green and every other hue possible.

'Before' Santa in his Led Zeppelin phase
‘Before Coke’ Santa in his Led Zeppelin phase

Think about that for a second, a cola company has culturally transposed the patron saint of Christmas. Coke is no longer a brand but a cultural religious icon.

Huge companies spend vast sums of time and money conducting surveys, market testing and research and even they get it wrong sometimes.

This is where we can learn from their mistakes without having to have made our own.

Let’s check out a case study together and see how these steps happen organically (the hard way).

As we can observe phases of The Kenny Rogers Gambit below as performed by New Coke.

Know when to hold em

It was the 80’s and Coca-cola was losing the cola wars to Pepsi. What was Pepsi’s unstoppable marketing gunship? It tasted sweeter. Cokes prior counter-marketing was as a less sweet alternative to Pepsi. This from literally the decade taste forgot.

coke or die
Cokes counter-marketing lacked subtlety

                                                          

Cokes next logical step? It was time to change things up or be left behind. Time for a new age. A new formula, A NEW COKE, if you will.

So they changed the formula dumped a load more sugar in, did some market testing, in which some people actually liked the new flavor (right before they developed instant Type 2 Diabetes). So out New Coke rolled and Old Coke was discontinued.

“No more words, just shhhhhh”

Most coke drinkers just bought it just as they had before, and surveys suggested the majority of people liked the new flavoring. What could go wrong?

The problem is, people are naturally suspicious of change. When changing something as iconic as Coca-cola the new stuff had better cure cancer, promote world peace and do your taxes when you drink it or it would fall short of expectation.

Inevitably, even in the pre internet era there was internet outrage over the changing formula. In fact the internet was invented just so people could complain about New Coke.* (Citation needed)

In reaction to the foreshadowed scarcity, people stockpiled supplies of Old Coke (and possibly old Old Spice) in their garages. If pre-internet ebay was a thing back then, safe bet people were selling Old Coke there for ridiculous prices.

FireShot Capture 17 - New Coke Coca Cola Soda Pop Can Full 1_ - http___www.ebay.com_itm_NEW-COKE-C
New slogan for ya, ‘Oh the Irony’

Some supply chains were importing Old Coke from territories that still had the old formula, where New Coke had not yet been introduced to meet consumer demand for the original.

Despite New Coke’s growing unpopularity Coca-cola hung in there to see if their efforts would bear out, let’s face it, with the millions they had spent on development and marketing they had to.

Know when to fold em

Coke’s chemists tried to tweak the formula of New Coke in response to the growing backlash, covertly adjusting the acidity levels of New Coke hoping to address complaints about the flavour and highlight the drinks sweetness further.

Did it really taste that bad? Probably not, but peoples hardwired connections to the original formula and it being gone for good was similar in emotional attachment to losing a lifelong childhood friend.

Coca-cola’s Chief Operating Officer overhead the following exchange outside his country club.

“Have you tried it?”
“Yes.”
“Did you like it?”
“Yes, but I’ll be damned if I’ll let Coca-Cola know that.”

Even if it’s good people can and will hate it. The resistance to change was really that strong.

The company hotline was getting over 1,500 calls a day, a psychiatrist was hired to listen in on the calls and a handle on what was going on in consumers heads. The psychiatrist made the profound report that some people sounded as if they were discussing the death of a family member.

Pre internet Change.org petitions were written, over 400,000 calls and letters to the company Headquarters in Atlanta declared it as the worst thing ever. This was in the days when it actually took old fashioned hard work and effort to complain!

1943-coke-ad
‘The next war shall not be fought over slavery or taxes, but sugary beverages’ -StoneWall Jackson

In the American south, Coke was seen as a key part of the cultural identity, New Coke was likened to the surrender to the Yankees by the south during the Civil War (Yes, seriously…). Southern bottling plants were embargoed in boycotts and the product was emptied into the streets. The southern bottlers were already engaged in a lawsuit with Coca-cola over differences in pricing for bottling Diet Coke

Cokes defense was the Original Coke formula was different enough from the Diet Coke formula to warrant the charges, the bottlers now could argue New Coke was nothing more than High Fructose Corn Syrup sweetened Diet Coke. The bottlers also expressed that it was not worth the death threats, insults, and loss of standing in the community they endured by producing New Coke.

Coca-cola now faced boycotts from its bottlers as well as its consumers.

Know when to Run (DMC)

Not even a dope advert with Run DMC and Max Headroom could save an ill-conceived concept.

A news broadcast interrupted television everywhere, it was official Coke Classic was back.

Under the sustained backlash, Coke had no option other than to revive the original formula as Classic Coke within 3 months to sell alongside New Coke. New Coke was retired from circulation 7 years later.

Because it had been marketed as “The Real Thing” for so long, Coke had sowed the seeds of its own destruction by having a campaign that had worked too well and becoming an American institution.

But what was it about people’s connection with this product and brand, that they were so deeply upset that when the original was withdrawn that they also rebelled against the new formula as a consequence. To a large degree, the mental connection the audience forms with the product is greater than the product itself. Did Coca-cola overlook this or understand it all along?

“So if it aint broke don’t fix it?”

It’s never that simple. There is always room for improvement and innovation, but you must first understand what the market wants or know how to make the market want what you give them. In New Cokes case, make the market hate your new product so much they welcome the old one back with open arms.

Where this madness becomes genius was in the numbers. In the wake of Coke Classic’s return the Coca-cola company came back swinging, within six months Coke Classic was selling at twice the rate of Pepsi.

New Coke’s goal was more sales than Pepsi, so based on this alone, mission accomplished. All it took was collectively pissing off its consumer-base, costing a shit ton of money, nearly causing the southern states to succeed from the Union and being withdrawn 77 days later.

No one got fired over it as they didn’t want to discourage risk taking and innovation within the company. Maybe with all of Coca-cola’s extensive research, marketing knowledge and business acumen, New Coke’s massive blunder turned out exactly according to plan.

Sometimes gambling pays off when you know the rules of Brand Advertising.

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