You’re not crazy if you’ve recently had a sip of Coke Zero Sugar and thought it tasted a little different. A new version of the beverage, designed to taste more like regular Coke, is being rolled out across the United States.
Perhaps you enjoy the new flavor. You may prefer the old one, but you are unconcerned. Maybe you despise it so much that you swear you’ll never buy another Coke Zero.
The last option should make Coke shudder and bring to mind a notorious period in its history: the New Coke debacle of 1985.
When it comes to their signature products, companies like Coca-Cola (KO) must tread carefully. They must stay on top of consumer trends in order to stay ahead of the competition. However, they run the risk of upsetting loyal customers and driving them away from the brand if they make changes. And predicting what people really want can be difficult.
PepsiCo (PEP), a competitor, discovered this in 2015 when it removed aspartame from its Diet Pepsi formula in response to consumer complaints. Pepsi brought back the aspartame version the following year after enough customers complained about the new recipe.
When it comes to product blunders, however, nothing compares to New Coke. Today, the brand must be cautious not to make another blunder.
During a news conference in Atlanta on July 11, 1985, cans of New Coke and Coca-Cola Classic are on display.
Coca-Cola held a buzzy press conference in New York City in April 1985 to unveil the new drink recipe, confirming rumors that the company was changing its signature product for the first time in nearly a century.
“At the Vivian Beaumont Theater in Lincoln Center, some two hundred reporters, photographers and cameramen eagerly awaited confirmation of the sensational news, while hundreds more participated via satellite,” wrote Thomas Oliver in his 1986 book on the topic, “The Real Coke, The Real Story.”
New Coke was supposed to solve a major problem for the company: it had been losing market share to Pepsi in the years leading up to the announcement. Through its “Pepsi Challenge” ad campaign, which pitted Coke against Pepsi in blind taste tests, the rival cola had been bragging for years that consumers preferred its product. Coke’s own taste test gave birth to New Coke. According to Coke, nearly 200,000 consumers who tried the new formula preferred it to the old. It’s been compared to the original, but it’s smoother and sweeter.
Nonetheless, the new product was met with outrage almost immediately. The New York Times reported in a 1985 story that one man wrote a song called, simply, “You Changed the Taste.” The song’s message was clear: “Our feelings are very strong, after 99 years of being right, you did your country wrong,” the lyrics read. “So now hear our plea, and know that this is no joke, just give us back the taste of Coke.” Others formed protest groups, according to the New York Times. Another person reportedly compared the change to a friend’s death.
According to Oliver, by May 1985, executives were worried that the outrage would lead to a boycott of other Coke products.