New Coke and the Battle for the South: 30 years Later

Copyright Molly Block

Copyright Molly Block

For every commercial product that becomes an essential part of American life, there are thousands of others that get relegated to the dustbin of history.  Sometimes, as today’s image of the Dulitz Building in Galveston, Texas by Molly Block shows, some products simply fade with time.   But what happens when an established product tries to reinvent itself into something new?  That happened 30 years ago today, when Coca-Cola reformulated its classic soft drink into what was colloquially known as “New Coke.”

By the 1980’s, Coca-Cola had been steadily losing market share for decades, decreasing from a high of 60 percent just after World War II to less than 24 percent by 1983.  One major factor in the decline was Pepsi-Cola’s successful marketing campaigns towards a younger demographic.  Coca-Cola launched a secret taste testing project with a new, sweeter, more Pepsi-like version of Coke.  The new formula overwhelmingly beat Pepsi and the existing Coke formula, however, about 10-12 percent of taste testers experienced anger and alienation over the new formula, saying they might stop drinking Coke altogether if it was reformulated.  The change continued, however, just in time for the 100th anniversary of Coke in 1985.

Pepsi executives managed to smuggle a six-pack of the new beverage and saw the new formulation as a real threat.  Pepsi quickly took out a full-page ad in The New York Times declaring victory in the “Cola Wars.”  The Coke PR machine moved into overdrive.  Workers renovating the Statue of Liberty were the first Americans given cans to take home and thousands of free cans were given out in Washington D.C.’s Lafayette Park.  The results were promising, Coke sales were up 8 percent over the previous year.  There was still one area of the country Coke needed to win over: the South.

Coke had always been a southern drink.  It was developed in 1885 by John S. Pemberton, a confederate Civil War veteran.  His brother, General John C. Pemberton, famously surrendered Vicksburg to Ulysses S. Grant in 1863.  John S. Pemberton invented Coke in Columbus, Georgia as a patent medicine to combat alcoholism in civil war veterans, as well as an epidemic of “nervous prostration” in high-strung southern ladies.  Coca-Cola had been headquartered in Atlanta since the 19th century, and it was southerners who fired the first shots against the reformulated drink.  According to Oliver Thomas’ 1986 book, The Real Coke, The Real Story, many southerners viewed the change through the prism of the civil war.  In Houston, ads for New Coke were booed when they appeared on the scoreboard.

New Coke continued to do well in the rest of the country, but protests continued into the summer in the south, with bottles being emptied in the streets.  Coke had a bigger problem, though–it’s bottlers.  On June 23, several bottlers took their concerns to Coke executives in a private meeting.  On July 11, Coke executives announced the return of the original formula.  Sen. David Pryor (D-Arkansas), announced on the the floor of the U.S. Senate that it was “a meaningful moment in U.S. history.”

Old Coke was rechristened ‘Coca-Cola Classic.’  The ‘classic’ label was kept until 2009.  New Coke kept the name Coca-Cola until 1992, when it was renamed Coca-Cola II.  It was discontinued in 2002.  Coca-Cola Classic was outselling both New Coke and Pepsi by the end of 1985.  Old Coke had been gone for only 77 days.


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