“It’s delicious,” Lucas says, taking a long slurp. Five other kids stare at him in horror.
This is a fair representation of the prevailing literature on New Coke. For more than three decades, New Coke has been held up as the bad idea by which all other bad ideas are measured. Do a quick Google search for “the worst idea since New Coke” and you’ll find an encyclopedia of face-palms. Handmaid’s Tale–themed pinot noir. Mint-chocolate toothpaste. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. No one seems to dispute its shortcomings, least of all the people who ushered New Coke into the world. On the 10th anniversary of the drink’s introduction, the company’s CEO, Roberto Goizueta, told employees, sounding more than a bit like Churchill after Dunkirk, that what happened was “a blunder and a disaster, and it will forever be.” People speak with less moral clarity about war crimes.
The popular version goes like this: In the early 1980s, not content with producing the world’s most recognizable beverage, greedy executives tweaked the recipe for the first time in 94 years. They redesigned the can, launched a massive marketing blitz, and promised a better taste. But Americans wouldn’t stand for it. In the face of a nationwide backlash, the company brought back the old formula—now dubbed “Coke Classic”—after two months. The story of New Coke is eternal. It’s a parable of hubris.
It’s also a lie.
Far from the dud it’s been made out to be, New Coke was actually delicious—or at least, most people who tried it thought so. Some of its harshest critics couldn’t even taste a difference. It was done in by a complicated web of interests, a mixture of cranks and opportunists—a sugar-starved mob of pitchfork-clutching Andy Rooneys, powered by the thrill of rebellion and an aggrieved sense of dispossession. At its most fundamental level, the backlash wasn’t about New Coke at all. It was a revolt against the idea of change. That story should sound familiar. We’re still living it.
There’s one big thing you have to understand about the New Coke rollout: If people actually liked Old Coke as much as they later claimed, the new version never would have existed. But in the early 1980s, the company’s fortunes were sagging. Soft drink sales were down across the board, but Coke was losing ground to the smoother, sweeter Pepsi. Coke was still doing well in places with a captive market, like restaurants or concessionaires, but at stores—where consumers had a choice—sales were dropping in a way that Pepsi’s weren’t.
Coca-Cola had been slow to adapt to changing preferences in the past. Diet Pepsi premiered in 1964, but it was another 18 years before Diet Coke debuted. In the meantime, the company offered sugar-free Tab, which carried a warning label informing drinkers that it was linked to bladder cancer in rats. Drink up! The journalist Bartow Elmore’s Citizen Coke speculates that the Reagan administration’s escalating drug war may have added a level of urgency to the company’s long-range planning by threatening Peruvian coca production…[ ]