As a journalist covering the beverage business, you learn one thing pretty fast. There really is no other company in this business with the global power or influence of Coca-Cola.
But there is one entity in this business with perhaps even more power. With a few taps of their keyboards, and some clicks on the “send” button, it can influence the decisions of even a company as large as Coke. I am talking about the consumer.
Case in point is the controversy that arose this past holiday season when Coke changed the colors of its cans from their traditional red to white. The limited-edition white cans—the first use of white cans for Coke in its 125-year history—were part of an arctic-themed campaign with the World Wildlife Fund to call attention to the plight of the polar bears.
However, apparently some consumers mistook the white cans for diet versions of Coke—a mistake that could be potentially serious for those with health conditions like diabetes. Others, according to the Wall Street Journal, actually felt it tasted different in the new cans. While others just felt it “bordered on sacrilege,” according to the paper.
Coke decided to change the cans to red two months after it announced the promotion in October. It was supposed to extend through to February.
The can conundrum calls immediately to mind Coke’s biggest public relations fiasco—its introduction of New Coke back in 1985, and subsequent change back to ‘Coke Classic’ after a huge
What do both instances have in common? In both, Coke made major changes never thinking they would lead to any problem. And in both, the company was shocked to discover the level of passion and ownership consumers have with its brand. This brand is such a piece of Americana, they feel as though it is a part of them, especially here in the U.S., like baseball and apple pie.
Coke’s misfire over the white cans actually fits perfectly into the year we just ended. I was recently watching an interview with The New York Times’ columnist Thomas Friedman. He spoke about 2011 being a year where powers that be made major decisions only to be rudely awakened when they were rejected by the ones who really hold the power in today’s hyper-connected world—everyday people. His examples ranged from Russia’s Vladimir Putin who was told by his people, ‘No, you can’t just continue to lead us because you want to!’, to Netflix, who was told by its customers, ‘No, you can’t just raise prices on us because you want to!’
While Coke’s white can mistake isn’t as egregious as Putin’s, or even Netflix’s, it does fit in with this trend in 2011 of major powers being forced to sit up and take notice—because the people have spoken.