Will Coca-Cola Repeat New Coke Fiasco with Coke Zero Sugar?

First introduced in 2005, Coke Zero quickly became one of the three pillars that the Coca-Cola brand presented to consumers. But now, 12 years later, the soda pop king is rebranding it’s no-sugar offering from Coke Zero to Coke Zero Sugar.

Yes, that’s it. One new word, Sugar, has been added to the product name.

The main reason for the change, according to Coke, is to better show the world that there is no sugar in the formula… in case you didn’t already know. And while that makes sense, with a growing concern towards sugar intake among the general population, it may end up backfiring on the brand.

To make the change seem less frivolous, they have added New Improved Taste to the messaging; and have tweaked the formula, without actually changing the ingredients. “We optimized the blend of flavors that gave Coke Zero its real Coca-Cola taste”, says a spokeswoman for the brand. Whether consumers will be able to taste the difference is an open question.

Another question that remains to be answered is: Will consumers embrace the change?

Those Who Don’t Learn From The Past Are Doomed To Repeat It

Coca-Cola should know better than anyone that messing with the formula of a popular carbonated beverage can be a very bad idea. And while memories may be shorter than they once were, 1985 wasn’t that long ago, and New Coke shouldn’t be forgotten by the brand. At the time, Coca-Cola could be forgiven for thinking it needed to make a change. Coke’s market share had been slipping (mostly to Pepsi) for 15 years in a row, and they had been embarrassed by the Pepsi Challenge for a decade. The launch of New Coke was meant to revitalize the brand and win those taste challenges. However, the change in formula, and taste felt like betrayal to the loyal brand community members that loved the Coca-Cola product and the brand.

It’s not a stretch to say that New Coke was the biggest mistake in the brand’s 130+ year history. The backlash then was strong and loud, prompting the original formula (now Coca-Cola Classic) to be put back on shelves just 79 days after it was pulled, as the brand community rose up against Coca-Cola to voice their displeasure with the change. At the height of the resistance Coca-Cola received as many as 1,500 phone calls per day to its consumer hotline, an increase from the 400 calls per day it received before the change. There were also protests in Atlanta, hate mail being sent to the Coca-Cola head office, and a general disappointment in the brand across the United States and beyond.

Now, imagine that same backlash in the era of social media. Coke Zero drinkers may be fewer than Coca-Cola Classic drinkers, but Fewer voices and less dissatisfaction could easily result in larger campaigns and complaints from the brand community through posts on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and more. We only have to go back a few months to find the online backlash that Pepsi experienced after their poorly conceived ad with Kendal Jenner. That ad was pulled and the brand community, and online community at large, were not shy about voicing their displeasure with the brand.

With the memories of the New Coke fiasco and Pepsi’s recent experience with social media backlash in mind, Coca-Cola should be well aware of how bad the Coke Zero Sugar rebranding could be for the brand.

The change is especially curious given the fact that sales are going up. In fact, Coke Zero saw 3.5% dollar sales growth in 2016. So, if we acknowledge the public’s disdain for sugar, why wouldn’t Coke simple run an effective marketing campaign telling people that Coke Zero has no sugar? That simple decision would save them from the need for new packaging, a new name, and an optimized formula that is already selling at a growing rate.

All rebranding efforts come with risk vs. reward stakes. But this time, especially given Coca-Cola’s own history, the risk seems unnecessarily high.

Don’t be surprised if this is New Coke all over again.

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Joshua Murray

Joshua Murray

Fuelled by ideas, opportunity and coffee, Joshua attacks the social media landscape every day with a purpose. His experience in retail, customer service and public relations have combined to give him a 360 degree view of social media for brands and he is committed to helping all of his clients leverage their voice in the social sphere.

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  • NotSureWhatSideI’mOn

    I like coke zero. I’ve tried coke zero no sugar, it’s not the same, and it’s not better.

    • Seems like that’s the worst care scenario for people who liked the original product!

      • cybersaurusrex

        Agree. The new formula is too sweet and flat. Reminds me of Diet Coke with Splenda, not Coke Classic. Coke Zero had some kick. This new product is just “meh.” It’s still better than Diet Coke (from a Coke Zero drinker’s perspective), but it’s just not as good as original Coke Zero. I won’t be buying it or any other Coke products now. They ruined a good thing and will be losing a loyal customer who drank a lot of soda, water, etc. Big mistake on their part (so long as others follow). We’ll see.

  • cybersaurusrex

    The reason people are so passionate about Coke Zero is because, until it launched, drinking diet soda was unpleasant. Coke Zero was different-it actually tasted great (at least to me). I felt no need to even drink regular Coke anymore and probably haven’t in about ten years.

    Now, it’s gone, and the new product is just a pale imitation, and I won’t be drinking it. I know it’s just soda, but I loved it. I won’t reward Coca-Cola’s stupid (and senseless) decision. If they wanted to launch a new brand, a new flavor, then just do it. Call it “Sugar-Free Coke” or “Coke No Sugar.” But don’t ruin the only soda that is growing in a market that is collapsing. Seriously, what marketing “geniuses” thought this was a good idea?!?