The Coca-Cola Co. formally apologized today to the nation's die-hard Coke fans.
"We're really sorry for any discontent we caused," Coca-Cola President Donald R. Keough told a news conference beamed in on closed-circuit television from the company's Atlanta headquarters. Coca-Cola, he said, had been given "a humility lesson."
The company called the news conference to announce that it was bowing to consumer pressure and bringing back the old Coke flavor under the name Coca-Cola Classic just three months after it was discontinued with great fanfare in favor of a new taste.
Company officials insisted today, however, that the new formula that now carries the Coke name is "the best-tasting soft drink in the world," and that together the company's various soft drinks will capture a greater share of the world market.
"We do not see this as a defensive move," said Chairman and Chief Executive Roberto C. Goizueta. "This is an offensive move to satisfy more customers and sell more gallons of soft drinks."
Putting the best face on an enormous miscalculation by one of the world's consumer and entertainment giants, Keough said the company's extensive and expensive market research "did not reveal the depth and abiding emotional attachment" of some Coke drinkers to their brand.
The "passion" expressed for the original Coke "flat out caught us by surprise," Keough said. "You can't measure that any more than you can measure love, or patriotism or pride." Keough read from complaining letters comparing the switch in formulas to "burning the flag" or "God making the grass purple."
Coca-Cola announced in April that it would alter the 99-year-old formula for Coke, and has promoted it heavily as tasting "better" than the old. New Coke is sweeter, contains more calories, and is less carbonated than the original, and has been likened to its arch-rival Pepsi.
Resistance to New Coke was spread throughout the country, Keough said, acknowledging, however, that it was strongest in the South.
Coca-Cola clearly wants to win back angry customers. Although Coke sales rose 8 percent in May, the June results were flat compared with the year before and below expectations -- possibly a reflection of consumer "withdrawal," said Brian G. Dyson, president of Coca-Cola U.S.A.
The company had expected some complaints, but was stunned by the extent and duration of the protests. The officials denied rumors that Coca-Cola had planned all along to bring back the original or had even developed this strategy as a contingency plan in the event of such reaction. The decision to bring back the old formula was made Monday, less than three months after New Coke was introduced, they said.
Keough also disputed one reporter's suggestion that the nationalities of the corporate executives may have played a part in misreading the American public. Goizueta is from Cuba, and Dyson is from Britain. Keough, who is from Iowa, said they all were unaware of the "deep emotional ties" to Coke.
The syrup for Coca-Cola Classic (the old flavor with the new name) will be shipped next week and should reach the market soon thereafter. It will be priced the same as Coke (the new flavor with the old name).
Both will be available to fountain vendors in fast-food restaurants and entertainment operations.
The company is confident that Coca-Cola Classic will find shelf space in supermarkets, despite having to compete with five other types of Coke as well as other brands. "Retailers will always find space for what consumers want," Keough said.
"We're giving consumers what they want," Goizueta said, describing the new brand as the response to a newly emerged market segment. Coke's other variations -- Diet-Coke, decaffeinated Coke, decaffeinated Diet-Coke and Cherry Coke -- are aimed at other segments. He denied the widespread speculation that Coke will be marketed to appeal to younger drinkers, while Coca-Cola Classic will be aimed at older customers.
The company's strategic plan, developed in response to the competition, is to increase overall sales by satisfying the desires of individual segments, Dyson said. Officials declined to discuss their advertising plans, but Dyson added, "We intend to market all our brands vigorously."
Looking at the international market, Coca-Cola officials denied they had blundered by changing the flavor of Coke. They indicated that they did not expect similar consumer resistance to the new product in other countries, where Coke is less of a national institution.
New Coke has been "far more successful in Canada, for example," Dyson said. The company will introduce Coca-Cola Classic there if consumers want it, he said.
Coca-Cola Classic will be available worldwide, but will be marketed according to consumer demand, officials said.
The reintroduction of the old Coke will not detract from plans to aggressively market the new version, which will be considered the flagship brand. "We have a total committment to its growth," Dyson said.
The stock market reacted favorably to the new strategy. Propelled by rumors of the decision, the stock rose to 72 3/8 by Wednesday's close, compared with 67 3/8 by last Friday's close. It closed today at 74 3/4, well above 72 3/4, which had been the highest mark in the last 12 years.
As a way of saying thank you to the consumers who prompted the move, Coca-Cola promised a special treat to Gay Mullins of Seattle, the founder of Old Cola Drinkers of America. The company promised to hand-deliver to him the first case of Coca-Cola Classic that rolls out of the Seattle bottling franchise.