If you are old enough to remember -- and have a repugnant reaction to -- the term "New Coke," congratulations, you are part of the greatest generation ever to swig soft drinks.

If you don't remember New Coke, then you have unfortunately (or fortunately) missed out on one of the greatest marketing flubs since Norwegian Vikings falsely advertised Greenland and Iceland (look it up).

What was New Coke? Imagine taking one of your most beloved and favorite brands, one with decades of brand equity and customer loyalty, and completely changing it without any warning or provocation. Like parting your hair on the other side for no apparent reason.

That is exactly what the Coca Cola company did in April 1985. For years leading up to that time, Coke had been losing blind taste tests and market share to Pepsi, its long-standing archrival. Reacting to a perception that customers were trending toward sweeter tastes, the company replaced the then-99-year-old Coke brand with "New Coke," a sweeter and smoother recipe meant to satisfy this trend.

What was unthinkable about this introduction was that New Coke was not introduced as a brand extension. Instead, New Coke completely replaced the existing Coke. In fact, New Coke was the only drink marketed and distributed under the Coca-Cola brand from April through July that year.

The backlash was swift and immediate, and at times even extreme, with nationwide boycotts and a letter-writing and phone-call campaigns rivaled only by a BTS fan club (look it up). Reactions were so intense that the company backtracked just three months later and "reintroduced" the classic formula.

At that time, myself and everyone other living person on earth understood the intense brand loyalty of Coke drinkers, the type of loyalty that would deny Pepsi as a better brand even after picking it repeatedly in a blind taste test.  Everyone, it seemed, except the Coca Cola marketing and research team. Years later, Donald R. Keough, who led and was largely responsible for the New Coke debacle, admitted, "All of the time and money and skill that we poured into consumer research could not reveal the depth of feeling for the original taste of Coca-Cola."

Eventually, New Coke was demoted to a brand extension called Coke II, while the original Coke was branded as "Classic Coke." The word "Classic" was removed in 2009, once again allowing a new generation of soda drinkers the joy of having a single-syllable reference for every soft drink on the market.

And as for Coke II, it was retired in 2002, and like our school photo albums and every bad decision we made from the 80's, was packed away, forgotten and never again mentioned.

Until now. New Coke is back, baby.

In a deal with Netflix, Coca Cola has agreed to dig out the old New Coke (oxymoron intended) recipe from the archives -- imagined by me as filed with other failed trials, like Avocado Coke or Kale Coke -- and produce 500,000 cans of the then-new-now-classic New Coke in collaboration with the much anticipated Season 3 premiere of Stranger Things, a supernatural series based in the 1980's.

According to the New York Times, the idea was an idea of Matt and Ross Duffer, the creators of the Netflix series. "It was one of the first ideas in our Season 3 brainstorm. (The show takes place in) 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 (in the show)."

Surely, however, the Coca Cola company was willing to revisit such a painful failure on more than a zero-calorie, hyper-caffeinated brainstorm of a couple or young writers, right?

Yes, the more likely reason is brand exposure, given the fact that the supernatural Netflix series is also a supernatural hit, with 15.8 million viewers of its Season 2 premier (compare that to the 19 million viewers for the Game of Thrones finale). And don't call me Shirley (look it up).

Moreover, Classic Coke (or Coke as youngsters know it) actually saw an increase in sales and market share when it was reintroduced again in 1985, which caused many to speculate that the entire New Coke fiasco was a publicity stunt. So in the end, it is not such a bad memory -- even if embarrassing memories still exist.

The bigger lesson here, however, may not be grounded in the sale of bubbly soda alone. Stranger Things, and specifically Netflix's head of partnership marketing, Barry Smyth, is aggressively leveraging our cultural tendency for nostalgia, one that has not been satiated by a television show since Happy Days -- at least for the current generations.

Netflix is capitalizing on this nostalgia with several product partnerships to promote the upcoming series. For instance, several clothing retailers will be offering retro 80's clothing, much like that worn by the cast in the show -- and packed in boxes in my attic. Also, Baskin-Robbins plans to offer new flavors that are referenced in the show's Scoops Ahoy ice cream shop.

Product placement, partnerships and merchandising is nothing new or surprising. What is interesting is that the primary Stranger Things audience -- and presumed consumers for this strategy -- is not older generations looking to relive glory days, but rather younger generations. According to Statistica, 67 percent of individuals asked about the show aged 18 to 29 year olds have watched or plan on watching the series. Compare that to 50 percent aged 30 to 44, and just 32 percent of those aged 45 to 54.

True to X-Generation form, we just don't care.  

While younger audiences may be tuning in to understand what their parents mean when they mention D&D, Trapper Keepers or Journey at the dinner table, the more likely reason is that the show is just really well done. And while I believe that the 80's were great and formative, there is no reason to bring back the flannels and hairstyles of that era.

As for New Coke, in addition to being represented and consumed by the cast, Coca Cola plans on making the limited run available on its website and select vending machines around the country -- just look for those vending machines with Def Leppard Hysteria album stickers.

Do you remember New Coke? Please share your memories with me on Twitter.

Published on: May 22, 2019
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