Requiem for a New Coke: The Business of Buzz

I once heard someone, possibly Lyndon Johnson, remark, “I don’t care what they say about me, as long as they spell my name right.” I am old enough to actually remember Lyndon. (I somehow manage to date myself every time I sit down to write one of these.) Are you old enough to remember him?

Then you must remember the battle between New Coke and Pepsi. (Bear with me; I’m from Texas where everything is excessive in size, including the stories.) There are two versions of this tale, either or both of which might be true.

Version One is that Coca-Cola was getting its lunch eaten by Pepsi. Specifically, Coca-Cola was losing the “younger generation” market. So it changed its magical recipe to more closely mirror the taste of Pepsi. But Coca-Cola logistically couldn’t just replace all of the old Cokes on the shelves overnight, so they released the formula as a (creatively-titled) new product: New Coke.

Millions.

Coca-Cola poured millions of dollars int0 advertising New Coke. I remember watching the late Eddie Robinson, head coach of Grambling State University’s football team, touting the beverage in a commercial set during football practice. Despite having a coach in Robinson that was closing in on the all-time wins record, the school had flown under the national radar.

A southern college football program on the march to an historic win that fails to make the front page of the newspaper? Sounds impossible, right? Not if you know that Grambling was a historically black college playing in a conference filled with historically black colleges (which invites a wholly different discussion for another day). But the times were a-changing;  Grambling State University, and Coach Robinson in particular, was finally getting some national attention.

So the New Coke wagon was hitched to Robinson to create buzz. Now, that effort seemed to work but there was one problem, a formidable one for a product predicated on an exchange of money and physical health  for sensory pleasure. That problem being that New Coke was completely devoid of sensory pleasure.

I personally don’t remember the taste but I do remember the regret. (If you ever tried New Coke, you know what I mean.) I actually remember hearing flight attendants apologize for having to serve it and even warning an overly-curious passenger of his folly.

New Coke tanked. Horribly.

So (he continued, his wife pleading with him to pick up the narrative pace) Coca-Cola gives us Coke Classic–the old stuff. They promote it by way of an apology: “Oops. Sorry about that. You can have both.” Relieved at this return to the soda quo, people flock to stores and buy Coke Classic by the case.

Then, quietly, New Coke just disappears. And Coke Classic sales continue to climb. So Coca-Cola doesn’t care what anyone says about New Coke because everyone can spell “Coke Classic.”

A second version of the story is that the good people at Coca-Cola thought they were getting killed on the cost of sugar, so they turned to corn syrup. The resulting formula was close but discernably different. How would people accept this cheaper alternative when it was not quite the same taste anymore?

New Coke is how.

Like the street-corner magician who dazzles you with one hand while subtly dumping the rabbit out of his hat with the other, Coca-Cola dangled New Coke in front of our eyes while swapping sugar for corn syrup. Furthermore, by briefly introducing a terrible recipe (New Coke), the company ensured that people would actually be grateful to have the corn-syruped Classic version. Hey, at least it wasn’t New Coke, right? Coke Classic rang up the sales. (I don’t care what they say about me . . .)

As I said, I don’t know which story is true, but being a conspiracy theorist (don’t get me started about how many shooters were in Dealy Plaza) I lean toward planned and not accidental.

Why does any of this matter today?

Apple v. Android.

The big announcement date is next week. The big push date is shortly after that. I am regularly having to remind my children we don’t have to pitch a tent in front of the Apple store–not yet, at least. I’ve even had to remind my college-educated daughter that Steve Jobs left strict instructions in his will to make more than 25 iPhone 5’s. The interesting thing is the buzz is so loud that she’s committed to spending her own money to get it. (Steve, wherever you are, bless you!)

Apple has ceded the playing field to Samsung for a while. Samsung, through the Android platform, had a number of products on the market that seemed tempting. Apple fought back through the courts, winning a big legal victory that is still playing out. But lawyers are only good at generating negative buzz (see our likeability ratings), so that win won’t last. (Do they care what they say about them?)

My question for you as a business owner: Is hearing this buzz going to make you shift? Is it enough to get you to reinvest in your existing formula? Do you care what they say about you as long as they spell your name right? Both companies are betting on the buzz. Let me know. Vote in the poll.

And as always, good luck and good hunting! (Whether it’s with an iPhone or an Android.)

_____________________________

If you’re interested in discussing business law, asset protection, or simply hearing me grumble on about New Coke, find out how to get in touch with us at:  TheFisherLawOffice.com. You can also contact us at Facebook.com/FisherLawOffice, on Twitter @thefisherlawoffice, or at LinkedIn.com/in/FisherLawOffice. If you come here just because we sometimes incorporate kittens into the blog, you’d best consult the Arts and Cats Movement. Click image(s) for source.

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