Coke's reformulation failed famously back in 1985. What happens if everyone likes it this time around?

By Adam Campbell-Schmitt
May 28, 2019
Adam Campbell-Schmitt

This summer, fans of Stranger Things will be transported back to the summer of 1985 as our favorite Hawkins, Indiana residents face down the otherworldly and unknown in the third season of the Netflix series. The theme of the new season is that one summer can change everything, and it just so happens there’s a beverage brand that can totally relate: The Coca-Cola Company. In April 1985, the soft drink giant rolled out New Coke, a reformation of its iconic flagship product conceived partly in reaction to some serious trolling by Pepsi’s “Pepsi Challenge.” It was seen as a massive failure, in the sense that lifelong fans were suddenly without the product they had come to know and love. After 74 days, New Coke was axed and Coca-Cola Classic, as it came to be known, made its triumphant return.

Thanks to a tie-in with Stranger Things, New Coke is making its own comeback this month and transporting some lucky folks’ taste buds back to the mid-1980s. The original 1985 New Coke formula has been recreated and canned in a limited quality, and is being included with purchases at cokestore.com/1985 (more on that here).

At a launch event last week, I spoke with Vice President of Coca-Cola Trademark Jaideep Kibe, who admits the Stranger Things partnership was an opportunity for the brand to embrace it’s past mistakes with a bit of a wink. “I often think about the fact that if we did New Coke today, it would break the internet,” Kibe told me. “Some people think of 1985 as an epic failure. Others think it’s marketing genius because what it did was it strengthened consumers' connection to the real thing in some ways.”

New Coke will have its own role in the third installment of Stranger Things, and just as an actor prepares to immerse themselves in a character, so too did the Coca-Cola team in recreating its iconic flop. The original recipe was pulled from the archives, and the logo and can color (a slightly different red) were recreated for today’s modern, less-starkly cylindrical cans. 

“We’re blessed with having some of the best archives for any company in the world and when we started partnering with Netflix on this project we invited them into the archives with us to be able to learn on everything that happened in 1985,” Kibe explained. “This is the authentic recipe from 1985 and we’ve tried to capture the packaging as it was. When the first batch of New Coke cans started rolling out, there are people who have worked in the company for a long time and never thought they’d see the day with New Coke was coming back.”

We got our hands on a few cans and compared New Coke to regular Coca-Cola. Here’s are some of our writers' and editors' thoughts (with names removed to protect the innocent):

  • ”This is sweeter and smoother than regular Coke. The carbonation isn’t as strong or sharp, which I like in a soda.”
  • “Has more of a vanilla taste on first sip and seems to have a smoother mouthfeel overall. It feels less punchy than regular Coke.”
  • “It tastes like the gummy candies shaped like soda bottles. It’s almost syrupy in a pleasant way.”
  • “Just as bad as I remember. Feh. (Seriously, I’m ancient, so I remember the original release pretty clearly.)”

My personal analysis was that, frankly, I liked it. I keep saying it tastes like if Diet Coke (which as we all know tastes different than regular Coke) wasn’t diet and was made with sugar. I'm not a soda drinker very often, but between the two, I'd choose New Coke. I also asked our staff which they preferred, New Coke or Coca-Cola Classic, and the reaction was split down the middle, as were answers to whether they’d buy or try New Coke again. That wasn’t the case 34 years ago.

“When we introduced New Coke in 1985, there was hate mail, there were people who were stocking up on Coke original,” he said. “I think what we learned was there’s so much passion behind Coca-Cola and what it means to people in the U.S. When you’re faced 34 years later with an opportunity to lean back into that moment in history and to do it in humor, it’s also a sign that we don’t have to take ourselves so seriously all the time.”

While our survey was an unofficial and very small sample, with half of the people preferring New Coke, I wondered if a mass appreciation for the once-maligned product could garner it a second chance. I asked Kibe whether the company would consider a bigger relaunch of its most notorious product if there was a positive reception this time around, but it doesn't seem likely. “New Coke came about because of this partnership we have with Stranger Things, and it’s a limited time activation,” he said.

Of course, I also had to ask Kibe what his reaction to trying New Coke was: “I’m a fan of Coca-Cola original, and for me there’s nothing that beats the real thing. It’s a great affirmation for me of why I like what I like.”

Get your hands on New Coke and limited-edition Stranger Things and New Coke products and apparel at cokestore.com/1985. Stranger Things 3 streams on Netflix beginning July 4, 2019.

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