In 1985 Coca Cola made a decision which almost sent the monolithic soda company down the drain. 1985 was the year the Coca Cola Company introduced ‘New Coke’ – a sweeter formulation of the popular Coke beverage. The company, having invested considerable resources in formulating and researching New Coke, were so assured of the impending success of the new cola product they pulled the original Coke soda from the market upon introducing new taste cola. This proved to be arguably the biggest mistake in the history of the company.

What followed in the Coca Cola communiqué is well documented by business people and marketers alike. The company’s sales, while not tumbling immediately upon the release of the new product, soon nose-dived when dissatisfied consumers began to berate the company for the change. These fans of the original Coke, swelling in numbers rapidly soon after the release of New Coke, viewed the alteration of the original formula as an attack on the well loved American brand. Angry New Coke protesters held boycotts and emptied bottles of New Coke in the streets while Coke established a consumer feedback telephone line – complete with psychiatrist – to field calls from American customers who, according to said psychiatrist, sounded as though they were discussing the death of a relative rather than the demise of a cola brand.

So how did Coca Cola, one of the biggest brands in the world, make such a mistake? When investigating the possible reception consumers would have to the new taste Coke, the company were diligent in crossing their t’s and dotting their i’s – or so they believed at the time. Prior to the national roll-out of New Coke, intensive market research was undertaken by the company involving – amongst other methodologies – consumer focus groups. With amazing consistency across almost every session, one or two consumers reacted to the new product with such disdain their responses were ‘written off’ by researchers as highly emotional and therefore not truly indicative of public opinion. When we look back at the length and breadth of the research carried out, it is astounding that these researchers time and time again discounted the opinion of the most vocal consumers. Consider this for a moment – even if it was just one consumer a session who reacted against New Coke, multiply that by one consumer in almost every single focus group held. Suddenly that’s not just an emotional response – that’s a trend – and it should have served as a warning sign to Coca Cola.

Coke’s mistake in their research was mistaking genuine consumer discontent with the curse of focus groups everywhere – the dominant personality. Invariably whenever a group of people get together, one personality will assert its dominance in the group; this isn’t anything new having probably gone on since the dawn of humankind. In the focus group session however, one or two dominant voices can skew the session – that is, the opinions of few can be construed by inexperienced researchers as truths for many. The experienced focus group facilitator is aware of this dominance dynamic and will effect strategies to avert or minimise this impact on the rest of the group. How Coca Cola chose to handle the vocal ‘dominant’ in their extensive focus group sessions for New Coke is not recommended by any facilitator of focusgroup sessions worth their salt. One opinion in a group of nine or ten may not make a majority, however as the New Coke débâcle proved, all those single opinions joined in unison make some cacophony!

New Coke lasted just 77 days in the marketplace before Coca Cola reintroduced Coke as Coke Classic. In this time Coca Cola lost millions of dollars and the trust of the American consumer. That’s a high price to pay for bad research. This blog is not intended to be read as a criticism of focus group research; focus groups are a brilliant and cost effective way of uncovering consumer opinion about your brand and discovering how people really feel about it and I am a huge supporter of the advantage these tools can give to businesses. Coke’s mistake was not taking the opinion of their consumers seriously enough. Here at Jack in the box, focus group sessions are planned and implemented with military precision, and whether your budget is large, small or in between you can be guaranteed you will be hearing the true voice of your consumers – all of your consumers.