Twenty-two years ago, Coca-Cola launched the most spectacular marketing disaster of all time: New Coke. This flop of a pop was stagnant Coke’s response to rival Pepsi’s steadily growing market share.
Desperate to avoid losing the Cola wars, Coke changed its century-old, super-secret formula to make the product taste more like Pepsi. The resulting brew really was more like Pepsi than old Coke–flat Pepsi, that is. People hated the stuff.
But Coke’s error was more than just making a soft drink that didn’t taste good. Coke had turned its back on its own heritage as it panted after market share.
Coke drinkers were more than disappointed; they were outraged. The Old Coke Drinkers of America association sprung up. “You’ve ruined our Coke!” irate callers shouted. “You have taken away my childhood,” one woman mourned.
Coke’s real error was betraying its customer base as it chased new buyers.
It’s an error that today’s Republican Party is repeating. Insisting that compromising on classic principles is the path to regaining majority status (as though power were the end of public service), establishment Republicans consistently woo liberals into their big tent while giving conservatives the cold shoulder. They couldn’t make a more counter-productive mistake, as November’s upsets in Pennsylvania and Rhode Island, to cite just a couple of examples, show.
Betraying your base is order to attract those of different values is always a mistake.
In fairness to Coca-Cola, the company didn’t dig its heels in over the long term. It didn’t chide its customers for “disloyalty”. It didn’t appeal to doomsday fears of Pepsi winning the Cola wars. It didn’t expect soft-drinkers to put their taste values behind the company’s market share.
Instead, the company phased out New Coke, bringing back old Coke, for a while as Coca-Cola Classic, and ultimately as good old American Coca-Cola once more.
The Republican leadership would be wise to learn from Coke’s recovery, to repent of its New-Coke political strategy, and to return to its fundamental principles. Because the customer is always right, and classic is usually best.