Over the weekend, our family visited the World of Coca-Cola in Atlanta, Georgia. The most fascinating part of the tour for me — in addition to the opportunity to sample dozens of flavors of Coca-Cola products from around the world — was an exhibit about New Coke.
In 1985, after positive reviews from more than 200,000 taste testers and focus group participants, Coca-Cola announced that it was changing the nearly century-old formulation for its flagship beverage. Coke’s market share had been slipping to rival Pepsi for years, and the company felt it needed to shake things up. They did, but not in the way they imagined.
Coca-Cola expected an initial resistance to the new taste but thought it would die down and that New Coke would become readily accepted. Instead, the company’s phone lines were flooded with more than 1,500 calls per day, demanding the return of the old version of Coke. Seventy-nine days later, management acquiesced, announcing the return of “Coca-Cola Classic” in addition to “New Coke.” New Coke was eventually re-branded as Coke II, then phased out entirely in the U.S.
By all reviews, New Coke tasted good; it was sweeter, and tasters preferred it to both old Coke and Pepsi. But in changing the formula, in people’s minds it ceased to be “Coca-Cola.” Then-CEO Robert Goizueta insisted that the formula was not sacred and could be changed. Customers, especially those in the South, disagreed. Goizueta also failed to give customers and the press adequate rationale for the change, never mentioning Pepsi’s challenge or other reasons for the major switch. Finally, Coca-Cola executives rejected a proposal to just add New Coke as one additional flavor, instead choosing to replace Coke wholesale.
New Coke is a fascinating case study of the change process and the emotional side of change. Think about changes you have made or are considering in your ministry. You may have conducted focus groups and surveys; you may be convinced that the new path is the better way, and indeed it may be in the long run. Yet you must still consider the backlash fueled by emotions: feelings of loss of trust, of lack of voice, of losing something familiar and therefore special, even sacred. How you institute a change is just as important as the change itself. Don’t make the mistakes of New Coke.