Today’s post courtesy of Antonio Mora . . .
In 1985, before all our junior players were born and when many of their parents were young enough to be junior players themselves, the Coca-Cola Company took what has been referred to as the greatest marketing risk in consumer goods history. The company changed the formula for Coca-Cola, the world’s most popular soft drink, the first significant change in its formula in 99 years.
The development of what everyone ended up calling “New Coke” was a long and secret process that even had a code name, “Project Kansas.” The company’s most senior executives launched the effort, hoping to find a new “champion” for the company and reverse years of decline in Coke’s market share. By the early 1980s, Pepsi had become the best-selling soft drink among young Americans and Coke found itself suddenly in the unfamiliar position of not comfortably dominating the soft drink market.
“Project Kansas” and Coke executives chose to compete with Pepsi by drastically changing what was arguably the world’s greatest brand. Their huge mistake? They failed to consider their customers and Coke drinkers’ loyalty to the “real thing.” The outcry from Coca-Cola’s customers and its bottlers was immediate and “New Coke” turned into a marketing disaster amid public protests and boycotts. At first, Coke executives considered slightly “tweaking” the formula of their new drink, to make it more similar to traditional Coke. Cooler heads prevailed and, only 79 days after “New Coke’s” debut, the company reintroduced the old formula and started selling it as “Coca-Cola Classic.” It was the most spectacular about-face in American corporate history, bigger than Ford turning its back on the Edsel. My old boss, Peter Jennings, interrupted regular programming on ABC to report the breaking news. On the floor of the U.S. Senate, Democratic Senator David Pryor of Arkansas called Coke’s reversal a “meaningful moment in the history of America.” Trust me, I’m not making this up.
It was certainly a meaningful moment in Coca-Cola’s history. The company’s sales numbers soared, “New Coke” soon disappeared and “Coca-Cola Classic” went back to being plain “Coca-Cola.” Within a few years, Pepsi became an also-ran in the soft drink wars, and today, both Coke and Diet Coke outsell Pepsi.
The parallels between “New Coke” and the USTA’s 2014 changes to the junior competitive schedule are pretty obvious. Well-intentioned USTA executives launched the effort, trying to find a new “formula” to develop American champions and reverse years of decline in US tennis fortunes on the world stage. The USTA’s effort may not have had a code name, but the process was long, a lot of hard work was involved, and it was secret. Like Coca-Cola, the USTA didn’t fully consider the reaction of its customers and faces a huge public outcry. As Coca-Cola executives did at first, USTA officials are considering just “tweaking” their new “formula,” instead of fully reconsidering their decision. The big question, of course, is whether USTA officials will learn from the past, acknowledge the overwhelming opposition to their new “formula,” have the courage to stand up to internal pressure and reverse course, starting a new process that will be more inclusive of its customers’ wishes.