Changing Coca-Cola’s iconic formula? It happened, and it was big news. Here’s everything you need to know about what happened with New Coke...

If you were around in the 80s you might remember New Coke. It wasn’t around too long, but people still remember the frenzy around its release.

And this summer, the drink no one – ourselves included – thought would see the light of day again, returns. That’s right, 34 years after its short-lived launch, New Coke is making a comeback thanks to Netflix’s Stranger Things 3.

Set in 1985, the series continues its wave of strong 80s nostalgia, this time including one of the era’s biggest pop culture moments: our infamous change to the Coca-Cola flavour.

And rightly so. According to series creators and pop-culture aficionados, the Duffer Brothers, “New Coke was always going to play a role this season.” In a joint email interview with The New York Times, they said: “It was one of the first ideas in our Season 3 brainstorm. 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.”

So, with New Coke’s Netflix debut now upon us – and our pop-up arcade bringing helping bring Stranger Things fever to the UK – we’ve dug up the archives to present the full story behind the controversial flavour change of the 80s...

Best laid plans

In late 1984, a storm was brewing; enthusiasm for cola in general was lagging, while consumer preference for Coca-Cola and awareness of the brand was slowly slipping.

Roberto Goizueta, then chairman and chief executive officer of Coca-Cola, realised the need for immediate action. As he saw it, there were two options: change our marketing or change our flagship product – ‘original Coke’. In an attempt to re-energise the brand and the cola category, which had its largest market in the United States, Roberto made the ill-fated decision to tinker with the then 99-year-old recipe.

Roberto was no stranger to taking risks. One of his many gutsy moves was spearheading the wildly successful launch of Diet Coke in 1982, the first-ever extension of the closely guarded Coca-Cola Trademark.

According to his right-hand man, public relations legend, Harold Burson, Roberto’s background shaped his plan of action. “I think what influenced Roberto the most was that he was a chemical engineer. He was in charge of the technology,” Harold said. “And just like a carpenter thinks a hammer and a nail can solve every problem, he thought jiggling the formula was the right solution.”

Unfortunately, not all brilliant ideas hit the mark. As Roberto would later recall at an employee event honouring the 10-year anniversary of New Coke: "We set out to change the dynamics of sugar colas in the United States, and we did exactly that – albeit not in the way we had planned.”

A few blind spots

With the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to see that New Coke was the product of two quite big mistakes. For one, we failed to take into account consumers’ deep emotional connection with our product.

While a blind sip test of more than 100,000 consumers nationwide favoured New Coke over the original, what the studies didn’t show was the emotional bond people felt with their Coke. Add to this the fact that we struggled to describe the new taste in our marketing, and you’ve got a (literal) recipe for disaster.

“No one could come up with a really good definition of what the difference in the taste was,” Harold recalled, adding that the press were quick to expose this blunder: “We got questioned pretty hard on that at the press conference.”

Ah yes, the press conference. The big reveal of the “New taste of Coke” was planned for Tuesday, April 23, 1985 at a high-profile press conference in New York, but we were beaten to the punch. Beverage Digest leaked the news the Friday before, so by the weekend the story had reached the mainstream media – and it didn’t quite have the impact we intended.    

What happened next would be remembered as one of the biggest cultural moments of the 80s, and will go down in the annals of marketing infamy.

New Coke hits shelves, customers hit back

Back in 1985 America was very much united over one thing: New Coke couldn’t replace the great taste of original Coca-Cola. The overwhelming consensus was that we had made a major misstep by trying to reinvent the wheel. After it hit the market, we witnessed consumer angst the likes of which no business had ever seen.

The launch of New Coke unleashed an avalanche of complaints: we received a barrage of bad press, lawsuits, tens of thousands of letters from passionate fans pleading Coca-Cola to bring back their beloved brand (including the infamous “Dear Chief Dodo” letter and plenty more telling us what dummies we were), and were flooded with phone calls – our consumer hotline had more than 1,000 per day. In those first weeks following the launch, we certainly questioned the age-old sentiment that there’s no such thing as bad press.

Our dedicated employees were bombarded with questions and complaints from friends and neighbours. And not even delivery drivers were safe, as Phil Mooney (who retired as Coke’s chief archivist in 2013) remembers: “The ones who really took it on the chin were the delivery drivers. Those poor guys took a beating every single day!”

Desperate times call for desperate measures

From coast to coast, panic was widespread; there were protesters, loyalist clubs, and ‘Original Coke’ scalping. As we quickly discovered, we had a passionate fan-base who would do anything to get their hands on our original product. Stockpiling ‘old coke’ became so widespread that a black market was created for cases of original of Coca-Cola! Some people bought so many cases that they had to reinforce their floors to support the weight!

You just can’t beat the best

Turns out you just can’t beat the great taste of Coca-Cola classic. After reading the countless letters and listening to stories from fans young and old, we realised how severely we had underestimated the nation's sentimental attachment to ‘regular’ Coke. From first dates to the frontlines of World War II, our beverage was part of the America’s heritage and identity. As an elderly lady famously told hen President of the Coca-Cola Company Don Keough, he had “taken away her memories”.

We faced the music head-on and quickly withdrew New Coke from the market.

Less than three months after launching the reformulation, we announced the return of “Classic” Coke. Don delivered the news to the public via a prime-time TV commercial. It was news that brought the nation to a standstill – or at least caused TV anchor Peter Jennings to interrupt General Hospital to make the announcement.

Colossal blunder or marketing genius?

After our announcement, sales for original Coca-Cola surged, restoring it as the number one choice in the nation's competitive soda market.

Lynn Henkel, who was Manager of Consumer Affairs for The Coca-Cola Company during the New Coke backlash, recalls: “When we made the announcement to bring original Coke back, it was like flipping a switch. Everyone wanted to know where they could buy it. From a consumer affairs standpoint, New Coke raised the visibility of the public’s power because people suddenly realized they could call and that we would listen.”

Some cynics might have you believe that this was all part of a grand plan, but that was never the case. As Don Keough’s now-iconic retort put it: “we’re not that dumb and we’re not that smart.”

After all, just shy of 80 days on shelves isn’t exactly a win by anyone’s standards.

Coca-Cola classic prevails

We always thought New Coke would create a stir, just not quite in the way it panned out.

Today we continue to live by the lessons learnt from the New Coke debacle. It was a sobering lesson in humility, one which demonstrated that the Coca-Cola brand does not belong to us, it belongs to our fans. Don summed up the whole saga best when he admitted: “We screwed up and didn’t pay attention to our consumers.”

Find comfort knowing that Coca-Cola classic won’t be leaving shelves again – even if New Coke will be available this summer via a (very) limited promotional run. Find out more here.