Pop quiz: When did Coca-Cola stop being authentic?
Never, you might answer. After all, as the company's own promotional material puts it, Authentic Americana -- with all of the "happiness and uplift" that implies -- has been the core of the Coca-Cola brand ever since the first Coke was served at Jacob's pharmacy in Atlanta 126 years ago.
If you're a bit savvier, you might suppose that the day Coke stopped being authentic was the day it announced the introduction of New Coke. As it turns out, that was 17 years ago yestersday, and the CBC has posted the news story Ann Medina did a the time.
View the CBC story here.
It's hard to imagine now what a big deal the story was at the time, partly because it is hard to think of a contemporary parallel. Soft drinks, groceries, and other consumer-goods markets tend toward healthy competitive duopolies, while the inevitable network effects in the the tech and software industry tend to lead to successor monopolies. And it is hard to think of a contemporary product that has the myth and mystique of Coke's secret formula. (Any ideas? Send me an email).
Anyway, few new product launches have gone as badly. As this article from Fortune shows, a month after the launch of New Coke, Coca-Cola executives were still confident they had made the right decision.
Yet Pepsi knew that something fundamental had happened: it gave its employees the day off to celebrate what it saw as Coke's gaffe. As Pepsico's Roger Enrico put it: "These two products, Pepsi and Coke, have been going at it eyeball-to-eyeball. And in my view the other just blinked." Reinforcing success, Pepsi quickly came out with a devastating ad showing a young woman wondering why Coke had abandoned her. The ad was famously written in about thirty seconds and shot in one take, and starred the actress Kim Richards (who would go on to star in Meatballs II).
When I was in Denmark last month, I spent a day at the University of Southern Denmark at Odense in a workshop on authenticity and marketing. Over the course of the day, Soren Askegaard, a professor of marketing at the school, asked the question I posed at the very top. Most of us answered that Coke lost its authenticity when it brought in New Coke.
But as Soren pointed out, it wasn't the changing of the formula that undermined the authenticity of Coke's brand. After all, the product's formula, however secretive, had undergone plenty of changes over the years. No, the really bad move from a branding point of view was when they introduced a new product, a variant of the original, called "Coca-Cola Classic," on July 10, 1985.
Why is this signficant? Because that is the moment when Coca-Cola became a copy of itself. It was no longer Coca-Cola, it was "Coca-Cola" or -- just as bad -- "Coke Classic". Just as no true VIP ever goes into the "VIP Room" at a bar, nothing that calls itself "genuine", "famous" or "classic" is genuine, famous, or classic.
On July 10 1985, Coke ceased to be a living brand, evolving organically with the changing tastes and attitudes of America. With Coke Classic the brand was put in a museum, where it remains a simulacrum of the powerful brand it once was.
For those who are interested, here is a video of a conversation I had with Soren Askegaard the morning of our seminar: