Coca-Cola is bringing back the Real Thing.
In an astounding corporate about-face, Coca-Cola today yielded to a storm of consumer complaints over the new taste of Coke and promised to reintroduce the original Coke "within several weeks."
The old flavor will be christened "Coca-Cola Classic" and be sold in addition to the new formula for the world's best-selling soft drink, which was introduced in April, said company spokesman Thomas Gray. There was no word on how the new product, with the old flavor, will be priced.
The "New Coke" still will be considered the major company brand, but legions of angst-ridden Coke-aholics have spoken and will be able once again to buy the traditional product.
"Everyone wins," said Gray. "Thousands of dedicated Coca-Cola consumers have told us they still want the original taste as an option. We have listened, and we are taking action to satisfy their request."
Officials were tight-lipped about their decision here today at the company's towering granite headquarters downtown. But Roberto C. Goizueta, chairman of the board, was scheduled to take questions Thursday at an Atlanta news conference.
At the sprawling Pepsi-Cola headquarters in Purchase, N.Y., officials were gloating. "It's clear nobody liked Coke's new formula," said Becky Madeira, director of public relations. "They had a flop on their hands and had to do something about it."
Pepsi's chief executive, Roger Enrico, said, "It took us 87 years to get the first blink and less than 87 days to get the second."
Almost as soon as the $7 billion conglomerate said on April 22 that it planned to alter its 99-year-old formula, consumers launched grass-roots protests, including "Coke Was It" buttons. Devotees began hoarding what they began calling "good old Coke," stockpiling before supplies ran dry.
Top executives were collared at cocktail parties here in the Cola heartland. Company switchboards lit up with 1,500 calls a day, said officials.
"The reaction has been mixed," said another company spokesman. Although the company said 190,000 taste tests indicated a majority of people preferred the new taste of Coke, vocal legions of longtime Coke drinkers created a national stir about the formula change. In Seattle, Coke fan Gay Mullins filed suit to make Coke release the old formula -- but the case was tossed out of court.
Jesse Meyers, an industry expert and publisher of Beverage Digest, labeled the decision to reintroduce Old Coke "absolutely the result of the groundswell negative reaction.
"I think it's two things," Meyers said. "One, the market is getting incredibly diversified. Coke sees this as an opportunity to add another segment. Secondly, the diehard and very vocal cola drinker wants his old friend back. This became a cultural offense to some people and Coke is now saying, 'Hey, we're listening to you.' "
Indeed, industry sources say the decision to bring back Old Coke was largely prompted by nervous bottlers, who took the brunt of mass outrage from Coke loyalists. The move was intended to stem what appeared to be lackluster sales, especially in the South, Coke's largest market.
"We heard from consumers right away," said Frank Barron, secretary-treasurer of the Rome, Ga., Coca-Cola Bottling Co., which has among the highest per-capita Coke sales in the country. "There was an enormous request from Old Coke drinkers. They were saying, 'Hey, we want a choice.' I'm delighted we're bringing it back."
While some industry analysts have called the Coke switch "the biggest marketing blunder since the Edsel," others remained unsure about its impact.
"It may not be a blunder at all," said Leo Shapiro of Chicago, who surveyed Coke consumers for Advertising Age. "It may be brilliant. They've surrounded Pepsi with a product that tastes like Pepsi, in a can marked Coke, and brought the Old Coke back."
"It's almost Machiavellian. If the South had had leadership like this," he added, "it might have won the Civil War."
Until company researchers stumbled on the New Coke formula while working on Diet Coke in 1980, Coca-Cola relied on the legendary formula devised in 1886 by Dr. John Pemberton, an Atlanta pharmacist and former Confederate general.
Dubbed Merchandise 7X, the Old Coke formula is locked in a downtown bank vault and has been the subject of legend and lore -- particularly in the South.
It is used to wash windows and take the rust off chain saws. Doctors used it to settle the stomachs of colicky babies, and it was once seen as an omen of good health by reporters crowding an Atlanta hospital when former Atlanta mayor William B. Hartsfield was ill.
"He's all right," said an aide. "He just ordered a Co'-Cola."
When they introduced the New Coke, Coca-Cola officials vowed the old formula would henceforth rest secure and unused in its vault at the Trust Co. of Georgia.
Earlier this summer, top company PR men were holding the line, confident that America would come around.
"You just have to give people time to accommodate to the idea of change," said Carlton Curtis, director of media relations, over lunch at corporate headquarters three weeks ago. At the time, he said, the company had no intention of ever bringing back Old Coke.
"Some might say, 'If it ain't broke, don't fix it,' but every rule is made to be broken," he went on, expounding on the new corporate bravado at the once-staid soft drink company.
"If we all stayed happy with the status quo, we'd all be riding around in a horse and buggy. Desire to be the best you can be has always been the engine of progress."
But a week later, one top official was calling the consumer unrest a "serious situation" and alluding to contingency plans to possibly reintroduce it one day.
"We've considered bringing it back," conceded Ira C. Herbert, executive vice president and head of corporate marketing in an interview two weeks ago. "We are very clearly concerned about our image. We're not out to make people mad. We're lovers, not fighters."
Corporate marketers had believed their numbers: that the New Coke would achieve cola hegemony in the marketplace, with a taste touted as "smoother" and designed to capture budding teen cola drinkers as older consumers switched to Diet Coke. They believed that disgruntled loyalists were upset more with the idea of change than the taste itself.
But in Cola Wars, taste is perception, and the protests never died. Top strategists like Herbert began to worry.
"We don't want to see a major segment of the market mad at us, even though they may not have tasted a Coke in years," he said.
The return of the Old Coke was greeted with gusto here today in the cola capital of America. "Good move," said Franklin Garrett, gray-haired city historian who has spent a lifetime sipping Coke. In the last six weeks, he has moved from protest to acceptance of the new flavor.
But today, fresh from a lunch washed down with the New Coke, he could hardly contain his delight about the return of the old. "I guess they found out the old one wasn't broke after all," he said.
"Terrific," said Ted Sprague, president of the Atlanta Convention and Visitors Bureau. "Changing back is the greatest thing that's ever happened." Flying off to pitch conventioneers on Atlanta, he had found himself under the gun of protest, too.
"Everyone comes up to me and asks, 'Why in the world did they not keep the Old Coke? Why give up a winner?' I'm ecstatic. They've got the best of both worlds now: the new product, which is good, and the old loyalty. It's great for Coke and great for Atlanta."
Market philosophers were busy today tackling the meaning of it all. "Coke did their homework," said Stuart Giller, president and chairman of the Detroit Coca-Cola Bottling. "But market research didn't cover what the reaction would be to tampering with a symbol. Taste was only one piece of this thing. Coke didn't realize their product was as much a symbol as a consumer product. The consumer felt betrayed."
Analysts predicted that the New Coke flavor will continue to sell well. They see the decision as simply further product differentiation in a $50 billion world soda market that has been divided up among diet, caffeine-free, cherry and even chocolate fudge versions. Coca-Cola, whose products now account for 37 percent of all soft drinks consumed, will now have one more product to appeal to one more market segment.
Coke holds 21.7 percent of the $23 billion-a-year U.S. soft drink industry, compared with Pepsi's 18.8 percent, according to the industry newsletter Beverage Digest. Coke sells 1.6 billion 12-ounce cases a year worldwide, compared with Pepsi's 1.2 billion, Meyers said.
But dividing Coke's market further may make Pepsi the single biggest selling soft drink, Meyers said.
Analysts also expressed skepticism about claims by both Coca-Cola and Pespi that sales of their products had increased since the Old Coke formula was scuttled.
PepsiCo Inc. said retail sales of all its soft drinks, including Slice, Mountain Dew and Diet Pepsi, increased 14 percent in May. Coca-Cola said sales of Coke syrup to bottlers rose 8 percent in May, compared with those a year ago.
"A lot of smoke," Meyers said about the numbers, saying that meaningful figures would not be available for months.
Skeptics suggested that Coke's May increase reflected initial curiosity about the new version, and not necessarily allegiance to the new brand. Coca-Cola also was rushing the new flavor into the marketplace at that time, Pepsi said.
John Hayden, of Arlington, who has 20 cases of the Old Coke on hand, said he was "elated and surprised" by Coca-Cola's decision. "I thought it was one of those corporate decisions you just have to live with," Hayden said of the New Coke. "I had no faith in the system."
But last night, spokesman Curtis said that people like Hayden had spoken and that the company had heard them loud and clear. "It got to the point where we realized that's what consumers wanted," he said. "If you want to stay in business, you don't fight against that tide."