The inspired Pepsi Challenge marketing campaign of the 1980s was my childhood introduction to one of the fundamentals of scientific inquiry: the double-blind experiment. In a world beset with soft drink advertising, how could you really know which soda you liked best? Clearly what made sense was to put prejudice and branding aside, don a blindfold, and focus on pure flavor.
It was one of the greatest marketing coups of all time. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Pepsi steadily gained on Coke in terms of market share. Characters in the ads always picked Pepsi, of course, but so did most people who tried it in real life - the sweeter taste was more appealing. By 1983, Pepsi was outselling Coke in supermarkets, leaving Coke dependent on its larger infrastructure of soda machines and fast food tie-ins to preserve its lead. That was a success in its own right. But even better, Pepsi forced Coke into an infamous business blunder. Faced with eroding market share, Coke began a series of its own internal taste tests aimed at developing a superior product. Thus was born the dread New Coke, a sweeter cola reformulated to best both Pepsi and the classic formulation of Coke in blind taste tests.
The backlash was fast and furious, with over 400,000 letters of complaint pouring in to the company. Despite declining market share, Coke was still by far the market leader over Pepsi - and the company's millions of loyal customers weren't looking for a new flavor. Pepsi recorded the fastest year-on-year sales growth in the company's history during New Coke's first month, while a consortium of Coca-Cola bottlers decided to sue the company for changing the product.
But then Coca-Cola's senior leadership did something tough: They admitted that they were wrong. And they executed a strategic pivot that's kept them on top of the rivalry ever since. They reintroduced the original formula under the name "Coca-Cola Classic" and sold it in parallel with New Coke for a while. Over time, the "new" Coke was phased out, and Coca-Cola Classic became just, well, Coke once again - a product so culturally iconic that across a significant swath of the United States it serves as a generic term for what decent people call "soda" and Midwesterners call "pop."