Remember how Coca Cola launched ‘New Coke’ in 1985 after blind taste tests showed that customers preferred the sweeter taste of Pepsi to their own product?
It’s a famous case study in the history of marketing because it shows that no matter how big the research budget and the sample, if you don’t ask the right questions in the right context, and of the right people, your results will be flawed.
1. Time for a refresh
This was an expensive lesson learned by Coca Cola that put the very brand of Coke at risk when the new taste was whole-heartedly rejected by the consumer.
The lessons learned remain as pertinent to all marketers today as they did back in the 80’s.
Digital marketers making use of online surveys to enrich their email lists and gain vital insights into the needs, perceptions and behaviour of their customers and prospects should not overlook these lessons.
So here’s a quick refresh for those of you too young to remember, on just where Coke went wrong and how to avoid their mistakes….
200,000 people took part in a taste test conducted by Coca Cola that included three new unnamed formulas, the traditional Coca Cola and Pepsi. But Coca Cola failed to be transparent about the purpose of the test. Most of the studies participants were not told that they were influencing what would eventually be the new taste of Coca Cola.
If the participants had been fully informed, they would’ve been able to recognise their own loyalty to the original Coca Cola. The question Coca Cola asked participant’s simply required a “Yes or no” answer and didn’t take into account the customers’ more detailed feelings.
Although the majority of respondents (53%) said they preferred the new proposed taste, they did not know that they may never be able to taste the original Coca Cola again should this new formula (that many preferred) win the taste tests.
2. Continuity & Tradition:
Coca Cola also failed to identify who their current customers were. Research has shown that customers in the US are typically linked to continuity and tradition and novelty is not generally something that appeals to them. Coca Cola failed to recognise this which along with lack of transparency, greatly contributed to the flop of the soft drink giants new product.
3. What Lessons Can We Take Away From Coca Cola’s Epic Fail?
The ‘New Coke’ case study teaches the rest of us in marketing some compelling ‘don’t do’s’.
Firstly, when conducting research of any kind, market researchers should be entirely honest about the nature of the study. Only when the respondents are fully informed of the potential outcomes dependent on their responses can they give full and honest answers. Failure to do so can, as Coca Cola illustrated, seriously damage the launch of ‘something new’.
In addition to this, the Coca Cola example illustrates the importance of understanding your target market beyond the insights obtained from an online survey, taste test or focus group. According to an often cited breakdown of the American population into consumer types, ‘Belongers’ make up over a third of U.S. consumers. ‘Belongers’ are typically middle- class individuals, loyal to traditional institutions. I read one blog post that referred to Coca Cola’s reformulation as being like ‘a slap in the face to those for whom Coke represented familiarity and tradition’.
If these factors had been identified and considered alongside the results of the taste test, then the results might have been read entirely differently and ‘New Coke’ might never have made it onto the supermarket shelves.
Do you have any other examples of big market research blunders companies (both large and small) have made? We’d love to hear from you!