IN COKE AND POLITICS, 39% HAVE RIGHT INSTINCT

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The media are making the same mistake in evaluating Congress' first 100 days that Coca-Cola made 10 years ago when it introduced a new formula Coke to a stunned populace.

The media want desperately to show that the 100 days under Republican leadership has been a resounding failure, and they trot out survey after survey to prove their point.

On April 6, for instance, The New York Times, which has gone into fits of apoplexy over Republican advances, ran a front-page story on its poll showing that 47% of the public said they were "mostly disappointed" with Congress' first 100 days, vs. 39% who said they were pleased.

(Never mind that five days later, the Times came back with a story, deep in the bowels of the paper, reassessing its own survey and quoting other polls giving a more favorable public opinion of Congress' performance. For the sake of balance, you understand.)

As it turns out, Coca-Cola's research 10 years ago showed the same percentage of people who approve of the direction of Congress-39%-also liked the original Coke formula over the new one.

And who turned out to be right, I ask you? That 39% was and is a very perspicacious group.

The moral of the story is that both the press and Coca-Cola were very anxious to prove what they wanted to prove.

Coke executives were so bloodied and bruised over the results of the "Pepsi Challenge," which showed in very public blind taste tests consumers overwhelmingly preferred the taste of Pepsi, that the execs decided to junk the original formula for Coke for one they felt could beat Pepsi.

But as we noted then, the Coke research was flawed from the beginning. Only 30,000 to 40,000 taste tests out of 180,000 to 200,000 even involved the final formula. And only one wave of tests identified the drinks being tested.

What's more, consumers' preference of one brand over another can't be judged by blind taste tests. Buying a product is a complex decision involving the advertising, packaging, pricing-and the intangible element of what the product has meant in a person's life. Few brands are as ingrained in the fabric of people's experiences as Coca-Cola, and the shape of the bottle and the red logo are as evocative of what people think about Coke as the taste itself.

So what led to the biggest marketing debacle in consumer marketing (with the possible exception of the Edsel) was Coca-Cola management's equating taste with brand preference. Big mistake, but it was what they wanted to believe.

The Democrats want to believe that they still outscore Republicans on the taste appeal meter, and they point to the polls to prove it. But the Times own poll, showing only 39% of the public approved of congressional action, also said the current Congress would get more things done.

Buying a product or winning over a voter isn't always a completely rational act. And consumer goods companies and political parties ignore that bothersome little fact at their peril.

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