Stranger Things Have Happened, But Not Often: the Reintroduction of a Failed Soda

On April 23, 1985, the Coca-Cola Company debuted New Coke, replacing its flagship and market-leading soda, then called Coke.

Blind taste tests, a market research strategy employed by chief rival Pepsi, indicated that consumers overwhelmingly preferred the sweeter New Coke. So confident were Coke executives in the new flavor, they discontinued production of Coke the same week that New Coke was release. They evaluated releasing New Coke as a brand extension to Coke, but with bottlers were already pushing back after the launch of Cherry Coke, they preferred to shut down Coke production. New Coke’s introduction was an epic mis-read of consumer sentiment, and the original flavor was brought back to store shelves quickly, with production restarting just 79 days after New Coke’s launch.

This was not just a footnote in the summer of 1985. It was a sonic boom within the Cola Wars, evidenced by ABC News’ Peter Jennings interrupting daytime soap “General Hospital” with the special report.

So when Matt and Ross Duffer, creators of the Netflix series “Stranger Things” thought ahead to the upcoming third season of their show, set in the summer of 1985, they knew right away they had to make New Coke a part of the plot. As they told the New York Times, “It was the summer of ’85, and when you talk about pop culture moments, New Coke was a really big deal. It would have been more bizarre to not include it.”

Coca-Cola saw the opportunity and partnered with Stranger Things and Netfilx to “re-introduce” New Coke. Coke executives went into their archives for the long-forgotten recipe and branding designs of New Coke labels. The company is producing about 500,000 cans for New Coke and expects them to run out quickly.

In the 1970s, Coke had a dominant share of the soda market. Pepsi was making inroads on Coke’s dominant market share though, thanks to its Pepsi Challenge tactic. In it, Pepsi conducted blind taste tests in stores, in parks – giving consumers a chance to sip two sodas side by side, without labels, and decide for themselves which they preferred. Consumers preferred the sweeter Pepsi. And Pepsi shared this news broadly in the form of their TV campaign for several years in the 1970s and 1980s.

Here is Gabe Kaplan, star of hit 1970s show ‘Welcome Back Kotter’, in a Pepsi Challenge spot

In 1983, Coke’s marketshare had fallen to 24%, due in large part to competition from Pepsi, and its strong Pepsi Challenge ad campaign.

Intensity of Pepsi and Coke’s campaigns were so strong that it was dubbed the cola wars.

Growth in consumption of full calorie, sweet sodas, was believed to lie among younger consumers, a segment which was drinking more Pepsi than Coke at the time. As Coke began its own blind taste tests and found consumers to prefer their New Coke, a sweeter recipe than Coke, the moved to replace their stalwart with the new, sweeter soda.

And in 1985, New Coke was released, in response to the Pepsi Challenge and Coke’s market research.

It turned out to be a misread of consumer loyalty. Numerous case studies have been written about the flaws in blind taste tests, resulting from an underrealized brand attachment that consumers had to Coke. It allowed loyal drinkers to look past the new flavor, which they probably did prefer, and stick with the brand they had come to know and love – since they considered themselves Coke drinkers.

Bill Cosby helped introduce New Coke. And when Coke pulled New Coke from store shelves, Cosby ended his longtime involvement in ads for the company, saying his presence in spots praising superiority of a recipe which was no longer being sold hurt his credibility.

Here is a spot with Coke and Pepsi head to head:

More people chose Coke. Coke is it!

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