Archives

New Coke formula was 'better than we've ever had'

In 1985, the Coca-Cola company decided to shake things up — and it exploded in the soft drink maker's face.

In Canada, a poll asked drinkers if they wanted the 'classic taste' back

The president of Coca-Cola Canada explains the company's logic in changing the soft drink's 99-year-old recipe. 3:27

In 1985, the Coca-Cola company decided to shake things up — and it exploded in the soft drink maker's face.

"I still like the old Coke," said a woman interviewed in a parking lot. (Venture/CBC Archives)

"What's Coke doing? What is this all about?" Valerie Pringle, host of CBC's Midday, demanded of the president of the company's Canadian subsidiary in April that year.

Coca-Cola had just made a splashy launch of a new formula for the 99-year-old drink, and it quickly became known as New Coke.

"We think, Valerie, the best is better," said Neville Kirchmann. "We have a formula that we think is as good as, and better than we've ever had."

Coca-Cola dominated the soft drink market in Canada, and that was the time to act, he added.

"We feel that when you're right at the top of the heap ... that's the time to do risky things."

Pringle pressed him, suggesting New Coke had been developed because the company was under pressure from the competition.

Pepsi accepted the challenge

"It was just a publicity gag," said a man in a pickup truck of the new Coke. (Venture/CBC Archives)

"You're giving Pepsi a field day. They're going crazy with this," she said. "They're giving their employees a day off, they're running ad campaigns. They're saying you're on the run."

Kirchmann disagreed with a laugh.

"Their reaction is predictable. They need to give their people a day off to go out and try our new product."

"We've done our homework. We've done our research," he said, citing four years of research and testing a new flavour formula on "thousands and thousands" of Canadians. 

But Pringle said it seemed to her that what Coke was selling wasn't actually its flavour.

"Isn't Coke really about beach balls and bikinis and the shape of the bottle?" she asked. "It's the sex appeal and the marketing and the good times that people are buying."

But Kirchmann wasn't having it.

"Taste has got everything to do with it. Taste is very, very important," he said, while reassuring viewers that the familiar Coke trademark and red-and-white colours would remain, albeit with a silver outline.  

"I think the new taste of Coke is going to be great ... it's going to take us into the next 99 years."

It took less than 10 weeks, actually

Shopping mall polling stations ask Canadians to tell the Coca-Cola company if they're satisfied with so-called New Coke alone. 2:26

By July 1985 Coca-Cola had admitted that few people seemed to agree the new taste was better.

"Even though we quiet Canadians needed an invitation to say so, most of us would like the old Coke back," said Patrick Watson, host of the CBC-TV business program Venture

The ballot, which could be answered only in the affirmative, asked if Coke should bring back the "classic" taste and keep the new taste. (Venture/CBC Archives)

Canadians of all ages caught in streeters by the show were united in stating a preference for the old Coke.

And everyone could make their feelings known via a poll Coke was running.

The ballot, which anyone of any age could fill out, had but one question: should the company bring back the "classic taste" of old Coke and also keep the new taste?

"The big move has been made. The new taste of Coke is it," said Watson. "The makers are saying that old Coke is just a brand extension." 

'It's all propaganda'

Shopping malls were set with with Coke voting stations where the very act of casting a ballot was a vote in the affirmative. (Venture/CBC Archives)

The announcement that "classic" Coke was coming back had pushed up the company's stock value — something that made observers cynical about the drink maker's motivations.

"I think they just wanted to drum up some more business," said a man behind the wheel of a car.

Whether it was all a "game" or not, as one man said, the people who had strong opinions on their soft drinks were pleased. 

"Outspoken American Coke drinkers are very happy," said Watson. "They're celebrating a consumer victory."

Coke drinkers in Europe and Australia were automatically getting both flavours. Only in Canada were they being asked to vote on whether they wanted two tastes on the shelves.

In this April 23, 1985 file photo, Donald R. Keough, then Coca-Cola Co. President and Chief Operating Officer, toasts New Coke after a presentation at Lincoln Center in New York. (Marty Lederhandler/The Associated Press)

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.