Coca-Cola will bring New Coke back to market for a brief time, all part of a partnership with Netflix, which has featured Coke in its cult-favorite series “Stranger Things.” The third season of the series, set in 1985, will weave New Coke into select episodes, and so the streaming-video outlet approached the beverage giant about taking part in a promotion that will boost the return of the series as well as the company’s flagship drink.
The formula for New Coke has languished in the Atlanta vaults of The Coca-Cola Company for years, left to collect dust after an ill-fated launch in 1985. More than thirty years later, the company thinks consumers will clamor for the beverage they once declined to love.
“This is uncharted territory for us,” says Geoff Cottrill, senior vice president of strategic marketing for Coca-Cola North America, in an interview. “We want to look for ways to work with Netflix, but only in ways that don’t interrupt consumers, and don’t get in the way of the entertainment. If we can find ways to integrate authentically and add value to the experience, then we want to be a part of it.”
New Coke was supposed to be a saving grace for Coca-Cola, a sweeter version of its iconic soda tailored for modern tastes. Instead, its launch is seen as one of the greatest gaffes in the history of marketing. Consumers rebelled, hoarding cans of the original formula. The old reliable returned to shelves after just 79 days. Imagine the pushback if Twitter had been invented last century!
Now the oft-disparaged beverage has a chance to redeem itself in an era when consumers are exponentially harder to reach. Coca-Cola’s big swing shows how much blue-chip advertisers crave a connection with streaming-video outlets, which often run few ads – and in many cases, none.
And yet, advertisers of all stripes are eager to find ways to align themselves with the streaming shows that have captured more attention from the public. Viewers have “added a new platform in how they are consuming content and stories,” notes Cottrill. “It’s an opportunity for us to find an interesting way to be there.” Coca-Cola is taking part in a test with Hulu, which has begun to run on-screen “pause ads” that show up when its subscribers decide to stop their video selection for a period of time.
The pressure to catch consumers fascinated with ad-free premium video has become palpable. In February, Anheuser-Busch InBev ran a Super Bowl ad that did the unthinkable – it left viewers thinking more about HBO’s “Game of Thrones” than about beer. The commercial showed a character from the HBO series defeating the Bud Knight in a joust and then killing him in no uncertain terms. Even so, the commercial gave Anheuser’s Bud Light a connection to viewers who at the time were eager to see the series’ final season.
No one predicts streaming-video will take up the models used by TV networks. “We don’t have any ad space to sell,” says Barry Smyth, head of global partnership marketing at Netflix. Indeed, neither Netflix or Amazon break up their programs with commercials, while Hulu offers an ad-supported option that includes fewer commercials than linear TV. Netflix has tapped a marketing agency, 1TwentyFour, to work with advertisers and their representatives, but Smyth notes the company is not driven to rack up new alliances with sponsors, and says the service will remain ad-free. Other marketing alliances may be possible: “We are definitely open to working with brands, just so long as it’s very authentic,” he says.
Other streaming outlets are contemplating advertiser alliances, too – even if they won’t run commercials. Amazon features banner ads from movie studios and TV networks on its Prime Video home page. There are no plans to include traditional commercials on Disney Plus, the soon-to-launch subscription-video service from Walt Disney Co.. Still, the company could offer a limited number of content sponsorship opportunities that would align Disney Plus content with promotions from advertisers, says a person familiar with the matter, much in the same way a movie studio creates alliances with car companies and restaurant chains to call attention to a new release.
Netflix and Coca-Cola have been working on the promotion for 18 months, Smyth says, and with good reason. The marketing initiative, spurred after Netflix learned that “Stranger Things” showrunners Matt and Ross Duffer intended to make New Coke part of the story in the show’s third season, required a lot of research and work.
Coca-Cola will make available about 500,000 cans of New Coke to the public, who can buy it online as part of a package at CokeStore.com/1985, or have a chance to get it at the company’s World of Coca-Cola the week of June 3 on select days. As part of the promotion, Coca-Cola will also unveil limited-edition packages of original Coke with “Stranger Things” designs on them. And the company will launch an ad in movie theaters – a remake of an actual 1985 ad for New Coke directed by the Duffers themselves.
Researchers and designers at Coca-Cola spent six months sifting through past materials to recreate the New Coke package, which uses a slightly different shade of red than the original formula. Executives had to source the ingredients in the New Coke recipe and secretly produce New Coke concentrate in an Atlanta bottling plant.
The company doesn’t expect to make any money off the New Coke revival, says Stuart Kronauge, president, sparkling business unit, Coca-Cola North America, but it will use the experiment to gauge other reaction. She is interested to see how quickly the New Coke supply sells out, tracking the Netflix promotion to actual customer orders.”I want to see how fast that goes…the receptivity, the energy.”
You’d think reviving New Coke would be a task fraught with gravitas, but Kronauge suggests the process has been anything but. Coca-Cola ‘has a side that’s very playful,” she says. “We don’t take ourselves too seriously.”