In nearly every conversation about product flops and bad brand decisions, the “New Coke/Classic Coke” saga comes up – even though that infamous incident happened almost three decades ago. If you’re too young to remember or live under a rock, read more about it here.
While some people still think the whole thing was an orchestrated effort to draw attention to a new product launch, most pundits now agree it was simply a case of not fully understanding what drives customer behaviors. Ole Miss alumnus Harold Burson, co-founder of the world’s biggest PR firm – and who PR Week once called “the century’s most influential PR figure” – said as much last time he visited campus.
He would know. He worked on the Coke account then.
So what went wrong with Coke? Conventional wisdom holds that while in blind taste tests cola drinkers did prefer the “New Coke” formula, the company failed to account for the power of the brand.
When consumers make a purchase, they buy more than just the tangible product. They buy an image. A promise. An experience. And those things mean a lot. In Coke’s case, back in 1985, it trumped taste.
In my classes, we talk about brand perceptions, and it led to our own blind taste test. Could students tell the difference between an expensive brand bottled water and ordinary H20? I poured small samples of Fiji water (about $3-4 per liter) and similar servings of water from Kroger grocery store (which is sold for a fraction of the Fiji cost). Students got to try a sample of each.
And the result of this totally unscientific experiment? As predicted, no one really knew which brand was which. Those who got it right mostly guessed.
It’s a small but powerful point about brands: It’s not just about the product. Those students who drank Fiji before will continue to drink it because they know it’s not just water, but an image; it’s not just about quenching thirst but about the consumption of an exotic beverage from a faraway land.
Just as people who buy Starbucks feel they get more than coffee – and those who buy Apple are interested in more than just utility – good brands deliver on many intangible things.
Scott Fiene is assistant dean and assistant professor of Integrated Marketing Communications in the Meek School of Journalism and New Media at the University of Mississippi. He has more than two decades of professional marketing communications experience. Contact him at Safiene@olemiss.edu.