Charles II and New Coke

It might seem that there is little to link King Charles II of England with New Coke, but there are strong parallels. On April 23rd, 1661, Charles II was crowned at Westminster Abbey, confirming the Restoration of 1660. On April 23rd in 1985, Coca-Cola launched its new brand, New Coke. What linked the two, apart from the coincidence of the date, was that both were cases in which a mistake was made, and subsequently corrected.

Cromwell had led the revolt against King Charles I, and had the king executed in 1649. People thought they were gaining liberty by supporting this, but instead they gained a brutal dictatorship. Cromwell forcibly dismissed Parliament in 1653 and ruled as ‘Lord Protector,’ until his death in 1658. He was brutal against Roman Catholics, and exceptionally brutal against the Irish. When his son succeeded him, as is common with dictators, people decided they’d had enough and restored the monarchy in 1660. It is significant that Parliament, ignoring what the people thought, as they do now, erected a statue outside Parliament of the only man who ever abolished it. After the Restoration, people could enjoy themselves again, and Britain boomed. The ‘Protectorate’ became an unpleasant memory.

By the mid 1980s, Coca-Cola had seen Pepsi, a sweeter tasting rival, eat into its market. Young people, in particular, seemed to prefer the sweeter taste. Coke introduced its response in the form of New Coke, a sweeter version of its original product. It was a disaster. People rejected and mocked the new product, and Pepsi edged ahead for the first time. Coke’s response was rapid. Within 3 months they reintroduced the original formula, rebranded as “Coca-Cola Classic.” The public took to it in droves and Coke’s sales shot up. New Coke went into history’s dustbin, and the ‘Classic’ suffix eventually disappeared.

In both cases a change had been made in the expectation of a positive outcome, and in both cases it brought disaster. The key fact is that in both cases people went back to the original and corrected their mistake. If there is a lesson from the two instances, it is perhaps that people can learn from their mistakes, and go back to undo some of the damage they have caused. They should never be afraid to do so, despite all the charges of being backward-looking. Always the current status looks like an advance on the past, and it takes boldness to recognize that it was a mistake and to set about reversing it.