Keep Your Hands Off My Coca-Cola!

Let’s pull a Marty McFly and go back 30 years … this time, to 1985.

That was the year Back to the Future became a cultural phenomenon (hence my McFly reference). Another staple of the times was Miami Vice, which won over a generation with its flashy music and fashion. But do you remember Coca-Cola’s disastrous rebranding campaign, which introduced “New Coke?”

You could say it fizzled.

As rival Pepsi ate up the success of its “Pepsi Challenge” (consumers participated in blind taste tastes and found they preferred Pepsi), Coca-Cola did the unthinkable: replace its classic version with something new.

People weren’t happy. In fact, they were outraged. So outraged, in fact, that Coca-Cola pulled the plug on the campaign after just 79 days.


Relive the drama with this story. Here’s an except:

On April 23, 1985, Coca-Cola Company chairman and CEO Roberto Goizueta stepped before the press gathered at New York City’s Lincoln Center to introduce the new formula, which he declared to be “smoother, rounder, yet bolder – a more harmonious flavor.” The press, however, said what Goizueta couldn’t admit: New Coke tasted sweeter and more like Pepsi.

Had it been an opera, the Lincoln Center performance would have been a tragedy to devoted fans of Coke’s original formula. Rather than divide its market share between two sugar sodas, Coca-Cola discontinued its 99-year classic recipe and locked Formula 7x away in an Atlanta bank vault with the intention that it never again see the light of day.

“Some may choose to call this the boldest single marketing move in the history of the packaged goods business,” Goizueta said. “We simply call it the surest move ever made.” Coca-Cola president Donald Keough echoed the certainty: “I’ve never been as confident about a decision as I am about the one we’re announcing today.”

New Coke left a bitter taste in the mouths of the company’s loyal customers. Within weeks of the announcement, the company was fielding 5,000 angry phone calls a day. By June, that number grew to 8,000 calls a day, a volume that forced the company to hire extra operators. “I don’t think I’d be more upset if you were to burn the flag in our front yard,” one disgruntled drinker wrote to company headquarters. At protests staged by grassroots groups such as “Old Cola Drinkers of America,” consumers poured the contents of New Coke bottles into sewer drains. One Seattle consumer even filed suit against the company to force it to provide the old drink.