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How The “New” Coke Fiasco Could Have Been Mitigated

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new-cokeAny person who was at least 10 years old in 1985 remembers when Coca-Cola made the ill-fated decision to change their treasured Coke formula. Within three days of the April 23 official announcement that a revamped Coke taste would be foisted on consumers, bottles and cans of “New Coke” (as it quickly became known) flooded the market, and domestic production of the old Coke formula ceased.

Just as quickly, backlash erupted from die-hard Coke fans who couldn’t fathom why their beloved soft drink recipe had been yanked from shelves. Though some people simply shrugged their shoulders at the change, a growing movement of angry Coke loyalists began flooding Coke’s headquarters with snarky letters and nasty phone calls.

Within three months, Coca-Cola recognized its grievous error, so the powers-that-be reversed their decision on July 10 and brought back “Classic Coke”. However, the fiasco didn’t die when the new formula was downgraded to become just another “flavor” of Coke. (As a side note, “New Coke” was formally withdrawn from Coke varieties in 1992.) “New Coke” forever became synonymous with a public relations disaster, and was studied worldwide by professional marketers, as well as marketing professors and students, all of whom were eager to dissect the catastrophe.

Today, almost 30 years later, we can wonder at how Internet marketing could have mitigated the fans’ perceived alienation that led to the “New Coke” debacle. Below are three proven ways that Coca-Cola could have used the World Wide Web to more smoothly navigate the waters of a major corporate decision that would affect millions of Coke enthusiasts.

1.     Prepping the World for a “New” Change through Buzzworthy Videos

When Coke officials made their announcement, it was done in “cloak-and-dagger” style that was meant to create anticipation, but wound up causing emotional distress for plenty of consumers. Coke basically gave the public a whopping three days to prepare for the new taste of an old favorite. As anyone knows, people don’t take change well, especially if they feel it’s been thrust upon them without their knowledge or general consent.

In today’s Internet marketing era, Coke’s marketers could have built excitement around the transformation of their flagship fizzy drink. Using clever video spots (including the hot 7-second Vines that are all the rage), Coca-Cola might have whetted the taste buds of individuals globally. By doing so, the public would have been at least open (if not 100% accepting) of their revamped product.

2.     Inviting Coke Drinkers to Share Their “New Coke” Thoughts via Social Media Channels

In 1985, word-of-mouth was just as strong as it is today. With that being said, Coke wasn’t able to respond as quickly to naysayers as it could now, nor was the company’s ear as close to public opinion as it is today. Facebook and Twitter enable corporations to respond to positive and negative comments about products in real time. This gives businesses an enormous advantage; after all, they can detect any waves of dissent immediately, and make changes midstream if necessary.

Though this wouldn’t have necessarily prevented “New Coke” from being blasted by angered cola drinkers, it would have given Coca-Cola an immediate voice. This is always a powerful position from which to conduct public relations, especially when pessimism is in the air.

The other benefit to using social media channels would have been to highlight consumers who loved the “New Coke” taste. Hashtags (e.g., #NewCokeLove, #LoveNewCoke, #NewCokeRocks) could have bonded those individuals for whom the reformulation was a boon and not a bust.

3.     Using Reputation Management Techniques to “Push” Bad Reviews from Search Engine Results

Reputation management means something different now than it did when “New Coke” was released, and some might say that it’s more important than ever. According to a Pew Internet Survey from February 2012, 91% of adults who are online use search engines to seek out info. Therefore, it would be critical for Coca-Cola to launch a reputation management campaign.

By working with an agency well-versed in organic SEO and ethical link-building practices, Coke could have helped push damaging reviews of “New Coke” off the first two pages of search engine results. (Even Google admits that the third page of results is unlikely to be seen by the majority of surfers.) Though Coke still might have been forced to concede that their formula change was a dud, they would have been able to modify how their corporation was viewed.

Of course, “New Coke” didn’t destroy the company. That’s because they were: a) willing to make changes; and b) darn lucky to have loyal Coke drinkers.

But it planted the corporation firmly in the “marketing no-no” book of disasters where it accompanies the Ford Edsel and Crystal Pepsi.

With the Internet at its disposal, might Coke might have skirted international embarrassment? We can’t be sure, but it’s a good bet that the ending probably wouldn’t have been the same.  Who knows? We could be happily slurping “New Coke” during our afternoon lulls and never batting an eyelash as we check our Instagram updates.