‘New Coke’ church

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August 28, 2014 | Viewpoints | Number 17
Troy Watson |

In the spring of 1985, Coke decided to change the recipe of its flagship beverage for the first time in 99 years. The intensity of consumer rejection was unprece-dented. Protesters took to the streets. A group called Old Cola Drinkers of America gained national coverage by pouring new Coke down the drain and began organizing a class-action lawsuit against Coca-Cola in an attempt to get the old recipe revived.

Within a month, the Coca-Cola hotline was receiving more than 1,000 angry calls a day. Within two months it was more than 8,000. New Coke was quickly labelled the marketing blunder of the century. Coca-Cola quickly reintroduced the beloved old recipe under the name Coca-Cola Classic a mere 79 days after the launch of New Coke.

Why did Coca-Cola mess with its iconic cola when it was still the best-selling soft drink in the world?

Coca-Cola sales had been dropping since 1970 and the beginning of the ’80s marked the dawn of the “cola wars.” In 1976, Pepsi had launched the Blind Taste Test Challenge, inviting people to taste unlabelled samples of Coke and Pepsi and choose which one they preferred. By the 1980s, Pepsi was claiming more than 50 percent of the millions of people who took the test preferred Pepsi over Coke.

Coca-Cola began its own market research to investigate. A few versions of Coke were developed, including one that was sweeter than both Coke and Pepsi, and after performing blind taste tests with more than 200,000 people the results seemed conclusive: 62 percent preferred the new, sweeter version of Coke. Yet strangely, this new Coke people had preferred in the controlled taste tests was rejected by the public at large. Clearly, market research has its limitations.

Author Malcolm Gladwell, in his best-selling book, Blink, suggested the blind taste test research was flawed because the samples were so small. He reasoned that people would naturally choose the sweeter option between sips, but this didn’t mean consumers would prefer a whole can of the sweeter beverage.  

Another explanation for the dismal reception to New Coke was America’s emotional attachment to traditional Coca-Cola. They were messing with a piece of Americana.

Whatever the reason, people preferred—and still prefer—the old Classic Coke recipe over New Coke and Pepsi. Coke Classic—now simply called Coke, once New Coke was discontinued—currently claims 42 percent of the carbonated soft drink market, compared to Pepsi’s 30 percent.

There are plenty of insightful parallels here with the current state of the church:

• The Christian church is like Coca-Cola in that it currently holds the “largest market share” of all religious institutions in the world.

• The church also finds itself in the midst of a few wars: the “culture war,” the “worship war” and the “civil war” over the issue of homosexuality. These church wars are going to seem as silly as the “cola wars” to future generations of Christians, and already do to many.

• The church’s “market share”—attendance—has been dropping for decades in the West.

• The church has embraced market research on a grand scale over the past 30 years and produced countless “how to” manuals to help churches rebrand, re-grow, revive, reinvent and revision, in order to get people back in the pews.

Confronted with declining numbers, most churches are consumed with reinventing and rebranding themselves, although we often use more spiritual or theological language for the process. The temptation to reform and revive our churches, based on the latest statistics and data collected from various “spiritual taste tests” in North America, is resulting in an outbreak of “New Coke” churches trying to offer people what church market research has concluded non-Christians, ex-Christians, young people and other “key” demographics are looking for.

It was foolish for Coke to try to become more like Pepsi. I believe it’s just as foolish for churches to try to resemble whatever we think Canadians prefer today: support groups, TED talk commu-nities, nongovernmental organizations or polished Broadway productions, to name a few.

A final piece of insight from the “New Coke” fiasco is that there has been a 16 percent decrease in overall cola consumption due to the increase in health-conscious consumers over the past 15 years. Instead of trying to find a sweeter cola recipe, Coke should have been preparing for the growing health movement now motivating millions of consumers to reject cola altogether.

Striving to catch up with what is trending today is a terrible way to plan for the future.

Troy Watson (troydw@gmail.com) is pastor of Avon Mennonite Church, Stratford, Ont..

--Posted August 28, 2014

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