Brands are controlled and managed by humans.  As a result, brands make mistakes.   Remember Pepsi Clear and Crystal Pepsi? McDonald’s Arch Deluxe? Microsoft Zune? The XFL?  But the most notorious brand failure was New Coke.  25 years ago this month, after a fortune spent in research, testing and marketing, Coca-Cola unveiled a “new” formula of soda that was supposed to reverse its declining market share in the soda wars of the 1980’s.  The product was launched with a press conference at Lincoln Center and workers renovating the Statue of Liberty were given the first cans to take home.

Initial sales were OK.  But quickly a backlash began.  The formula was not loved despite the testing.  The new logo abandoned the decades script lettering.  The media jumped all over the story.  Widespread complaints from Coca-Cola’s core customers noted that they like Coke just the way it was.

The Change to Coke Classic

Coca-Cola did not deny the backlash for long.  In fact, they aggressively moved to un-do their error.  Within 77 days it began pulling New Coke and restoring “Coke Classic®.”  They came to understand that the brand and its connection with consumers was more important than any formula or test.  “There is a twist to this story which will please every humanist and will probably keep Harvard professors puzzled for years,” said the company President and COO at a press conference. “The simple fact is that all the time and money and skill poured into consumer research on the new Coca-Cola could not measure or reveal the deep and abiding emotional attachment to original Coca-Cola felt by so many people.”

And they embraced the decision to revert once it was made.  They didn’t hide from it.  They gave the first case of Coke Classic to one of the most outspoken purists who had formed a group to lobby for the old formula.

In the end, sales rose to numbers higher than before the release of “New Coke” and the company’s connection with the hearts of its customers was strengthened based on the way the company reacted to their outpouring and reversed their decision so quickly.

The “New Coke” disaster turned out to be the best thing for Coca-Cola.  We all make mistakes.  How a brand reacts to a mistake is critical; it could spell the end, or it could lead to better brands, better connection with customers, and more sales.

Lesson: If a branding mistake is made, recovery is possible.  Don’t run and hide from the mistake — correct it and learn from it.

For more on dealing with brand mistakes, see “How to fix a brand after letting customers down” by Anthony Pappas in the Washington Business Journal.

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