[Below, a post I wrote and never actually published — but I just got another very similar note from a different Buying In reader on the same subject, so I am now going on the record with my views.]
An interesting note from a Buying In reader came in the other day week. After some nice comments about the book in general (thanks again) my correspondent zeroed in on “a passing reference [in the book] that really surprised me: Coke’s monumental marketing flop with New Coke.”
It’s true, I do make a passing reference to this, not for reasons that have anything whatsoever to do with my feelings about the Coke brand, but rather to make the point that pre-Web consumers were not the mindless, passive, drooling, couch-potato dupes that Web-era gurus insist they (we) were.
Anyway, my correspondent continued, explaining that “an acquaintance” in the sugar business had a different view, which is that the whole New Coke thing was really a backdoor way for the company to phase out sugar in favor of (cheaper) corn syrup in its flagship product:
They knew that their customers could tell the difference in a side-by-side taste test. So they launched New Coke, a formula they knew would flop, fully expecting to re-introduce Classic Coke after all the original formula Coke was off the shelves, with the sneaky little switch of sugar to corn syrup. My acquaintance at [redacted] said that sales to Coke plummeted at that time.
As I told my correspondent, I have read an awful lot about Coke and its rivals — whole books, many chapters, many many articles — and this was news to me. Also it sounded like an extraordinarily complicated, expensive, and risky way of changing an ingredient.
I turned to Snopes. While I hadn’t heard this rumor before, Snopes had. And in fact it turns out there are a number of theories suggesting that in way or another, the New Coke debacle was no debacle at all — the whole thing was essentially a hoax that served as a marketing stunt.
Snopes debunks all of it — including the corn syrup angle: Snopes says it’s true that Coke phased out sugar, but that this was completed, in the flagship formula, six months before New Coke arrived on the scene.
Snopes also gives the general context that’s consistent with everything I’ve ever read, which is that a) Coke was actually feeling — in fact actually was — pretty vulnerable at the time, and b) the taste-test research it did, concluding that consumers preferred the New Coke taste, was extremely extensive.
So, I am tending to go with Snopes on this. And I also stand by the actual point I was making in the book by citing New Coke, and the Edsel, and many other failures of the pre-Web era: Consumers have never been stupid, mindless dupes who simply do what advertising tells us to do. They (we) have always had the last say on whether a brand succeeds, or fails. Always.
But of course if you see things differently, I will not argue with you. I am just telling you what I think.