New Coke and Other Terrible Ideas

ImageI’m re-reading Donald Keough’s book, The Ten Commandments of Business Failure. Keough was the President and COO of the Coca-Cola companies from 1981 until 1993. He has been on the boards of McDonald’s Corporation, the Washington Post Company, H.J. Heinz Company, and The Home Depot. Currently, he is the chairman of the board of Allen & Company, an investment firm.

Keough’s book is a very well-written, honest look at the ways leaders screw up. It is an awesome, easy read and worth every cent I spent on it.

I read very few business books. For the most part, they have nothing to do with the work of the church – despite the opinions of many of my peers. But this is one with direct application to ministry.

(As a point of fact, I have only three business books that I have found applicable to ministry: The Ten Commandments for Business Failure by Donald Keough, Built to Serve by Dan J. Sanders and The Contrarian Leader by Steven Sample.)

Keough was the COO of Coca-Cola when they introduced the now infamous New Coke. If ever there was someone who knows something about business failure, it is Keough. New Coke brought Coca-Cola to its knees, virtually destroying their market share. A little background information might help.

A Brief History of Coca-Cola

Coca-Cola was invented in 1886 and served as a fountain drink in drug stores until 1899 when a couple of adventurous lawyers from Kentucky bought the right to bottle Coca-Cola for the whopping sum of one dollar.

By World War II, Coca-Cola’s unique green bottle was inseparable from Coca-Cola’s image. The bottle was an inverted hour glass shape containing 6.5 oz of Coca-Cola and it could be purchased for a nickel. Everyone drank Coca-Cola; Coca-Cola’s market share was 60%. But trouble was on the horizon.

During the Great Depression, Pepsi-Cola marketed their beverage in 12-ounce bottles you could buy for a nickel. Because of the financial trouble most people were in, Pepsi became enormously popular. Before too long, Pepsi and Coke were neck and neck.

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Pepsi seemed to be a step ahead of Coca-Cola at every turn. It was the social beverage of the 50’s. In the 1960’s, people were “the Pepsi Generation.” And in the 1970’s, Pepsi launched their infamous taste tests where people were shown to prefer the sweeter taste of Pepsi.

It took decades for Coke to adopt new bottles. They never did achieve the level of marketing that Pepsi maintains to this day. And by 1981 Pepsi-Cola and other competitors had reduced Coca-Cola’s market share to 24%.

In 1985, Coke turned to consultants and even worse, listened to their competition. They made the mistake known as New Coke.

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After extensive research and taste-testing, Coca-Cola unleashed a sweeter version of the original Coke formula. Despite the assurances of their consultants, the general public rejected the new formula. At first people seemed willing to give the new taste a try, but a small movement turned the tide of the American people against it.

Chicago Tribune columnist Bob Greene wrote columns ridiculing the decision. People began booing the advertisements for Coke when they appeared on the scoreboards at major sports stadiums. A Seattle man, Gay Mullins, organized a lobby group called “Old Coke Drinkers of America” and filed a class action suit against Coca-Cola. Even the Cuban dictator Fidel Castro lambasted the stuff.

Three months after launching New Coke, the Coca-Cola company reversed itself. They reintroduced the original Coke formula as Coca-Cola Classic (although now cane sugar had been replaced by high fructose corn syrup because of a 1977 tariff that made cane sugar prohibitively expensive).

ABC News actually broke into regular network broadcasting to announce the return of the original formula. People bought out whole inventories of Coca-Cola Classic. Within six months, it was out selling both New Coke and Pepsi-Cola.

(As a side note, Pepsi would make a similar gaff when they sold Crystal Pepsi in 1992.)

What Does This Teach Us?

New ideas are fantastic. One of the points Keough makes in his book is that we cannot be risk-adverse. We must continually be exploring new options.

The problem with New Coke and other terrible ideas like it is that we make the decision in reaction to failure, which was precipitated by our own inflexibility. We react to the popularity of the competition by trying to “out Pepsi Pepsi.”

Pepsi is Pepsi and Coke is Coke. What Keough and the other leaders at Coca-Cola discovered was that Coca-Cola has an identity. Any ideas that they develop and implement have to maintain or further that identity. Pepsi cannot be Coke.

And your local church cannot be someone else’s local church, nor should you try to force other churches to be like you. You have to be who you are.

Heritage Baptist Church will never be the coolest, trendiest church in Manchester or New Hampshire or the world. We cannot look at others and long to be them. This kind of envy is a violation of the tenth commandment (God’s, not Keough’s).

A very good friend of mine (Steve Jesmer, the pastor of The Dialogue Church in town here) once told me that he could never preach what I preach on a Sunday morning. He said, “You give people seminary level stuff on Sunday.” He did not mean it as a criticism but as a compliment. Not many preacher/teachers can effectively convey some of the deeper things of Scripture with clarity and humor, and they shouldn’t necessarily try.

Our church is what our church is. The DC is what they are. Manchester Christian Church (our local mini-megachurch) is who they are. The other thirty or so evangelical or fundamentalist churches in town are who they were made to be. And prayerfully, we’re all doing what God made us to do in His Kingdom in Manchester.

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