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New Coke: One of Marketing's Biggest Blunders Turns 25

And You Think You'd Like to Forget Your Birthday

By Published on . 13

Today marks a quarter century of one of marketing's biggest blunders -- and the sixth biggest moment in 75 years of advertising, according to Ad Age: New Coke.

A brief history, from Ad Age, 10 years after the aborted launch:

Advertising Age, July 15, 1985
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Advertising Age's coverage of New Coke from July 15, 1985.

Still smarting from the 1975 "Pepsi Challenge" taste-test battle, Coca-Cola Co. launches "Project Kansas," a top-secret mission to reformulate Coke. President-Chief Operating Officer Robert Goizueta appoints Coca-Cola USA head Brian Dyson, who taps marketing chief Sergio Zyman to head the endeavor. Mr. Zyman and company test a new, sweeter version of the flagship cola with 190,000 nationwide taste tests at a cost of $4 million.

At a bottlers' meeting in Atlanta back on April 22, 1985, Mr. Zyman announced from the stage that Coke was changing its taste. The next day Coca-Cola revealed the new, sweeter taste to financial analysts and the media. But word of the new product finally leaks out and Pepsi dispatches its own press assault on the same day claiming victory. "The other guy blinked," Pepsi says in ads saying Coke reformulated its brand to taste "more like" Pepsi.

The press hammers at Mr. Goizueta, now chairman-CEO, to explain the difference and what will happen to the old Coke, which 39% of consumers still favor. When Mr. Goizueta admits it will do away with the old formula, consumers revolt. Dazed by the backlash, management on July 11, 1985, just 79 days later, agrees to bring back the original formula, renaming it Coca-Cola Classic.

Some in the industry counterintuitively suggested the blunder was actually good for the beverage giant -- that its fans' reactions to the idea of their beloved Coke going away, along with the reintroduction of the cola as Coca-Cola Classic, have created a fantastic new marketing strategy. But we think the lesson is pretty clear: Don't tinker with success. Or at least think very, very carefully before you do.

Here, in memory of the short-lived New Coke, are the Bill Cosby spots introducing the product -- and one of Pepsi's cheeky reactions to it. In the words of one of Coke's many taglines (this one circa 2000): Enjoy!

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