In with the “new” and out with the “classic”

It was April the 23rd yesterday; St George’s day when the red and white flag flies on churches and municipal buildings across England. It’s a memorable day for another ‘red and white’ brand too.
On Tuesday April 23rd 1985, Coca Cola introduced “New Coke” with a huge public fanfare. The new recipe was a sweeter tasting product, intended to arrest a gradual, but steady decline in Coca Cola sales and appeal more to Pepsi drinkers. “Old Coke” was withdrawn
The new recipe had been thoroughly tested and the concept explored through surveys and focus groups.
Much has been written in the last 29 years about the resulting consumer reaction, media coverage, competitor response and how the Coca Cola management team made the decision, handled the launch and the feedback. There are many conflicting views on all these subjects. Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Blink” and “Why most things fail” by Paul Ormerod are just two books that dwell heavily on the episode.
The one indisputable fact is that on 11th July 1985, less than three months after New Coke’s launch, the original formula was reintroduced under the name of Coke Classic. Explaining the decision, the company President Donald Keough said “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.”
My learning from the story and the discussion that has followed is that we have to recognise that research is limited. It is very difficult, if not impossible to create a real life situation in which to test people’s reactions to new ideas. The very act of conducting research creates an unreal situation in which respondents will be tempted to supress their emotional responses in favour of the rational. As emotion plays such a large part in human decision-making, even a small de-tuning of this component can create a highly misleading result.
I’m not saying research is wrong – I’m a big fan of anything that helps us understand customers better; but I do think it needs to be carefully constructed and interpreted to be valuable. Free, do-it-yourself on-line surveys don’t guarantee to deliver robust insights any more than my laptop computer makes me a great writer of blog posts!