- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 6, 2011



Managing an international icon, profitable though it may be, is difficult, particularly if you can’t resist temptations to tweak, change, adjust and otherwise bend, twist and knock it out of shape.

Coca-Cola, perhaps the most recognizable icon anywhere in the world, demonstrates once more that the consumer isn’t always the most docile sheep in the barnyard. Coke’s latest misjudgment of the market should make an interesting object lesson for the business schools, whence come so many political consultants, advisers and other campaign blowhards.

There may even be lessons here for the political parties and the voters who make the final judgments of politicians. The Democrats have a particularly sorry record of tweaking ineffective “brands,” sending the likes of Michael Dukakis, Al Gore and John Kerry into the November marketplace. The Republicans have a sorry record, too, tweaking the likes of Bob Dole and John McCain, and now seem to be flirting with sending Newt Gingrich into the highest-stakes game in town. You can’t always freshen up the label, no matter how hard you try.

Coca-Cola has for years decorated its cans of Coke with holiday themes, a Santa Claus, an elf or a bough of holly, but always with its trademark bold, bright red background. Easily thrilled Coke drinkers, according to the marketing men, look forward to this expression of the season, contrived jollity that it is. One Coke addict told Coca-Cola that the annual arrival of holiday cans brought the “same inexplicable winter-goodness vibe” as Christmas carols.

This year, Coca-Cola couldn’t leave the winter-goodness vibe alone. It withdrew the red cans and replaced them with snow-white cans as antiseptic as a bedpan.

The white cans are decorated with shadowy images of polar bears, commemorating Coke’s contribution of $3 million to the World Wildlife Fund’s campaign to “save the polar bears.” Many consumers bought the white cans thinking they were silvery cans of Diet Coke. “I purchased three six-packs because I thought they were [Diet Coke],” one Coke drinker tells ABC News. “I drank one and wondered why it tasted so good. I am a diabetic and can only drink diet sodas.”

Others complained that they wanted only something cold to drink, not a tired sermon about global warming or the melting of polar ice and the plight of the polar bear, a beast that is a favorite of children who know nothing of its reputation as a predator of baby seals willing enough to eat children when it finds a plump and juicy specimen floating on an ice floe. Outrage in the supermarket aisles grew apace.

The wise men at Coca-Cola insist that the emergency-room white was chosen not because it reminded them of snowy wintry days but to raise “awareness” of the polar bears and to focus attention on the $3 million Coke took from the petty cash drawer to send to the bears (none of whom could be reached for comment). “The white can resonated with us because it was bold and attention-grabbing,” a Coca-Cola spokesman told the Wall Street Journal. Soon the white cans, which were not “resonating” anywhere else, were withdrawn, and Coca-Cola in the traditional red regalia was on its way back to the shelves.

You might think Coca-Cola would have learned a lesson from its earlier debacle with so-called “New Coke,” which it introduced in 1985 as a sweetened Pepsi killer. New Coke upset not only taste but the carefully cultivated story, probably invented by an earlier marketing man, that the Coca-Cola formula invented at a drugstore soda fountain in Atlanta in a previous century was so closely held that it was locked in a vault and known only to a tiny few.

New Coke was soon derided as Crap Coke, withdrawn, and replaced by Classic Coke. Sales zoomed. This led to widespread speculation that New Coke was a clever scam from the beginning, never meant to be permanent. But of course we know that marketing folk would never dream of doing anything like that. The true original genuine authentic Coke, as a matter of fact, is still formulated in Mexico with cane sugar and not the less expensive high-fructose corn syrup that changed the taste of Coke in the United States. The so-called “Mexican Coke,” still sold in once-familiar green bottles vaguely reminiscent of the female form, has a growing market in Southern California.

The lesson here for the Republican pols, as the pundit primaries draw to a close and the real primary season begins, is to beware of the noisy, empty, same old blah-blah just because it seems “new” and “improved.” Eventually, the consumer will taste it.

Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.

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