This post is a rare departure for me. Usually I babble about the universe or spirituality and whatnot, but today I want to tell you a story about product development. Coca-Cola in particular. So let me babble about that for a while instead.
I’m an Advertising Strategist by day. By night, I soak up all the podcasts and audiobooks and articles I can on the subject. Looking for recommendations? Try You Are Not So Smart, Freakonomics, and Blink. Those are good places to start. In fact, I heard this story in one or more of those places.
Anyway, here’s the story of the infamous New Coke and how it relates to Diet Coke. Picture the late 70’s/early 80’s. Pepsi had a huge marketing win over Coca-Cola with the Pepsi Challenge. The idea was simple. Have people sip a little Pepsi and a little Coke and choose which one tasted better. Pepsi won. Why? Because it’s sweeter. And in a single sip, Pepsi is actually preferred. The problem is – when drinking an entire can, Coca-Cola is preferred. Didn’t matter, because the damage to Coke was done.
Pepsi continued its success with the Pepsi Generation campaign. Remember Michael Jackson, the world’s biggest star, shilling for Pepsi?
Meanwhile, Coca-Cola had a surprising success on its hands with Diet Coke. Instead of taking the Coca-Cola formula and replacing the sugar with artificial sweeteners, the company created Diet Coke as an entirely new product. Part of the reason for this was that the artificial sweeteners available at the time did not taste like sugar or corn syrup. They were sweet in a weird way. So they had to re-formulate to get a decent tasting diet cola. So – Diet Coke is not Coke without the sugar. It’s wholly different. And people loved it.
The trouble there is, Diet Coke was now also eating away at Coca-Cola’s market share alongside Pepsi and 7up et al. But Coke wanted their flagship sugary Coca-Cola to be the reigning #1 cola on the market. So they had to do something. Anything.
The plan? Take the artificial sweeteners out of Diet Coke (which people liked) and replace them with sugary sweet corn syrup. The result was a beverage sweeter than Coca-Cola and Pepsi. They branded it New Coke. And guess what? It tested through the roof. Single sip after single sip, people preferred the sweet taste of New Coke.
But remember A. people didn’t actually prefer that much sweetness after an entire 12 ounce can, and now we know that B. people are sentimental. No one pictured themselves as a New Coke drinker. They were Coca-Cola drinkers! The New Coke era was a genuine disaster.
Now, there are people out there who will tell you the whole New Coke thing was a sham. That Coke never intended for New Coke to be a success and that they were just trying to force nostalgia. But the evidence suggests that they really did hope that New Coke would take off. So says Snopes.
The obvious thing to do was to bring back Coca-Cola full force to take advantage of the rising tide of nostalgia. And of course Coca-Cola Classic was reborn. New Coke stayed on the market for a few more years. Later re-branded as Coke 2. But it was dying an untimely death as Coke Classic took back the top spot. The rest was history.
Decades later, Coke realized that there was a segment of the market that wanted zero calorie cola but didn’t think of themselves as “on a diet”. Hence, Coke Zero. Targeted mainly for men, Coke Zero was in essence Classic Coke with the sugars replaced by newer sugary tasting artificial sweeteners. That’s the primary difference between Diet Coke and Coke Zero. Diet Coke was an entirely new product. Coke Zero was Coke without the sugar.
Fascinating? I think so. And for the record, I don’t drink any of it. Unless there’s bourbon involved.