Media Branding Lessons to Remember from "New Coke"

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Coca-Cola quickly returned to its classic formula after public outrage over New Coke in 1985. Photo © Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

April 23, 1985, was the day Coca-Cola introduced "New Coke", which some say was one of the worst blunders in U.S. business history. Even 30 years later, it's a reminder of how a media branding campaign can go terribly wrong.

If you weren't alive in 1985, here's what happened: Coca-Cola had decided that in order to better compete with arch rival Pepsi, it needed to change the taste of its signature drink.

Rather than offer the "New Coke" alongside the old favorite that people had enjoyed for generations, the company pulled the original formula off the market.

The outrage was so strong that within three months, the old formula was back as "Coca-Cola Classic". The two shared space on the shelves, although New Coke received far less marketing attention, before it was finally discontinued in 2002.

Media pros would be wise to remember this marketing tale from generations ago. Even though we sell news, information, entertainment and not a fizzy soda, the lessons are as clear as the ice cubes in the glass.

Drastic Changes Can Be Dangerous

Coca-Cola had faced mounting pressure from Pepsi. It had taste-tested its new formula with focus groups. It spent massive efforts to launch New Coke using celebrity pitchman Bill Cosby who was massively popular at the time.

So the company didn't make a haphazard, panicky decision to change Coke overnight.

Still, company leaders probably didn't anticipate the consequences they'd soon face from loyal customers who felt betrayed by losing their favorite drink.

For a media company that's facing pressure, especially when the technology and the marketplace are changing so fast, it can be tempting to do something big.

A TV station that is stagnant in the Nielsen ratings could decide that its longtime news anchor should be replaced by a fresher, younger face in order to lock in the most desired audience demographics.

That move will get attention, but maybe not the kind you'd desired. Before you decide to give your longtime anchor the boot, decide whether you can move that person into a different role while also hiring a new face. Had Coca-Cola introduced New Coke but kept Old Coke on the shelves, it could have made everyone happy.

Focus Groups Aren't A Guarantee of Success

Media companies regularly test their products, their people and their branding strategy through focus group research. This provides some assurance that whatever change you want to make has been given a trial run with your audience, allowing you to gauge reaction before you make a final decision.

But there are many focus group dangers to consider. In Coca-Cola's case, the focus groups probably liked the taste of New Coke. But we don't know if those people were ever asked their reaction on pulling the original Coke off the market.

If you're a magazine publisher using focus groups as part of a plan to revamp your publication, consider whether your research is accurate.

If you ask a group whether it wants a lot of short stories or a few in-depth articles, you might get "yes" to both questions. That does little to help you form a strategy that will bring guaranteed results.

Listen to What Your Audience Is Telling You

The corporate world is full of executives who think they know what people want, better than the people themselves. That type of arrogant mentality can bring disaster.

A radio station owner might decide to switch formats, maybe from country to Top 40. It's probably the most drastic kind of change that can happen in any form of media, because a station owner knows that the existing audience will likely be lost. In most cases, the station never told its audience what was coming, leaving listeners asking why their favorite station is different.

Coca-Cola executives wisely heard the outcry of their customers and revised their plan to bring the old Coke back.

That takes a level of responsibility that is sometimes missing in media companies that will stubbornly dig in their heels and say the audience will get used to the change. The audience may instead change to a competitor.

The lesson of New Coke is that customers didn't necessarily hate the taste. They just hated the way it was thrust upon them. Media companies must carefully map out not just the changes they want to make, but also the audience response and have a plan to soothe hurt feelings or modify the business strategy in order to avoid a catastrophe.