Thursday, April 27, 2006
1985: Year of the Key Battles in the ‘Cola Wars’
By ROGER M. GRACE
The Coke-Pepsi “Cola Wars”—which started with Pepsi-sponsored taste tests in the Dallas-Fort Worth area of Texas in 1975—became intense in the 1980s, with the hottest battles occurring in 1985.
That was the year when, on April 23, the Coca-Cola Company announced that, after 99 years, it was changing the formula of Coke. (Actually, the recipe had previously been altered, most notably by eliminating cocaine and, more recently, by replacing sugar with high fructose corn syrup…but the notion that the company was deviating from the original recipe made the switch seem all the more dramatic.)
Pepsico responded by claiming victory in the Cola Wars—giving its workers the day off on April 25 to celebrate—and trumpeting that New Coke was designed to taste more like Pepsi.
There were protest marches against the abandonment of the traditional recipe, and even a short-lived consumers’ lawsuit. Merchants hiked the price of bottles of the discontinued Coke two- and three-fold.
Any bit of contention between the rival cola makers was treated as serious news. The Coca-Cola Company had insisted that New Coke had two less calories than Pepsi. Roger Enrico, president of Pepsi USA, a Pepsico unit, proclaimed in a June 13 interview with the Chicago Tribune that tests by three independent laboratories established that a 12-ounce can of New Coke had six more calories than a like-sized can of Pepsi.
Paul Harvey, in a column nationally syndicated by the Los Angeles Times, noted on May 28:
“The Wall Street Journal assigned a market researcher to make some comparative tests of the old Coke, the new Coke and Pepsi...and discovered that cola drinkers’ loyalties are so flimsy they change from minute to minute.
“The first test indicated they favored one particular brand.
“Given a second test with shuffled bottles the same people indicated a reference for another brand.”
He opined that the Coca-Cola Company had unwisely departed from its venerable formula in response to an advertising ploy by a competitor, writing:
“[B]efore the Pepsi people take too many days off celebrating, let me suggest an 18-month ad campaign for Coca-Cola which could devastate the competition.
“I’m suggesting that for the first time a corporation must renege on the ‘new and improved’ and repent in public:
“‘We’re sorry, Americans, we hadn’t realized that those of you who want Coke want the real thing.’”
The Coca-Cola Company, whether influenced by Harvey or not, did publicly repent. On July 10, it announced it was bringing back the original formula—causing Coca-Cola Company stock to hit a 12-year high on the New York Stock Exchange.
However, New Coke would not be supplanted by Old Coke, company president Donald R. Keough explained the following day during a 90-minute news conference. Rather, both colas would be marketed.
“We did not read the deep emotional ties that people had to the concept of Coca-Cola,” Keough remarked, adding: “That just flat caught us by surprise.”
The original Coca-Cola would now be called “Coca-Cola Classic,” he said.
There was immediate, widespread suspicion that the Coca-Cola Company had ceased production of traditional Coke with the very purpose of later declaring, with fanfare and publicity, that in response to public clamor, it would soon be returned to grocers’ shelves. Keough said at the press conference:
“Some cynics say we planned the whole thing….The truth is we’re not that dumb, and we’re not that smart.’ ”
The July 10 announcement was the big news of that day and the next—and, of course, reaction from Pepsi was sought by reporters. Enrico was interviewed live on ABC’s Nightline and Good Morning America, the CBS Morning News, and on CNN.
The Associated Press quoted a spokesman for Pepsi, Ken Ross, as saying:
“We’re not surprised. Very obviously people across the country do not like this [new] Coke. We now have the opportunity to compete with one product that lost to Pepsi in millions of taste tests and against one product that the public hates.”
On Oct. 10, 1985, a single-frame cartoon, Dunagin’s People, depicted President Ronald Reagan at a press conference declaring:
“We intend to stick to our position: the Cola Wars will not be discussed at the Summit.”
An AP retrospective of the past summer carried by newspapers in early in September, said:
“No issue…seemed to engage America so deeply as the cola wars, especially Coca-Cola’s tactical retreat in bringing back old Coke along with the new.”
Copyright 2006, Metropolitan News Company
MetNews Main Page Reminiscing