Faced with decreasing market share caused by the "Pepsi Challenge" taste-test battle, Coca Cola launched “Mission Kansas” in the 1980s to reformulate Coke. As Pepsi was going sweeter, New Coke was to follow the trend in an attempt to take over the lead again with the altered taste.
In this top-secret top-priority endeavor, Coca Cola did many things right: They framed their product innovation initiative with a clear goal, did their research, worked with the most renowned people, put in tremendous effort and gave it their all.
Despite all this determination, the launch of New Coke was a disaster. Consumers were outraged and demanded their beloved Coke back – the taste that they knew and had grown up with. The request to bring the old product back was so loud that soon journalists suggested that the entire project was a stunt. To this accusation Coca-Cola President Don Keough replied on July 10, 1985:
"We are not that dumb, and we are not that smart."
What can this example teach us about innovation?
Twenty years later, Coca Cola is still alive and kicking, still a tad ahead in several areas in the on-going head-to-head race with PepsiCo. Given these circumstances, the lesson learned is most likely not to avoid risk-taking or not to invest in product innovation or new trends.
The process around their attempted product innovation was given a lot of thought. While much could be said about how to factor customer narratives and psychological reactions more heavily into the equation, there may be much better learnings in looking at how Coca Cola dealt with the blunder of their attempted product innovation two decades ago.
Based on this example and many others, it may be time to admit:
- Innovation is not always predictable: When it comes to change and innovation, there are simply too many factors at play for us to know how only a single factor will play out in the future, much less a series or combination of factors.
- Innovation is a mind-set. The failure of the New Coke in the mid-80s was not exactly a walk in the park. Nonetheless, it did not stop Coca Cola for even one day. The company took ownership, dusted itself off and tried again. And as a result they understood that innovation is much more a mind-set or a spirit than a procedure.
- Innovation is more about sensing than about knowing: Coca Cola’s example shows that we cannot always know how an innovation will be received. When we want to scale and predict innovation, we think things through, then apply old “proven” methods. One could also say: When we apply what we believe to know, we only maintain the status quo. If we admit that we cannot know for sure, we must rely on our senses, which make us both humble and curious. Not a bad combination for true innovation to unfold.
- Only ongoing innovation sparks resilience. Coca Cola is still a giant after all these years. The company has changed over time, branched out in certain areas and not very much in others. They have shown that it’s on-going renewal that sparks resilience, not just isolated endeavors.
- Innovation is much more about the here and now than about the future. As many other examples have shown, sometimes the best products are not accepted by the market. Market acceptance has to do with factors such as usability and consumer curiosity as well as a number of clear-cut consumer psychology issues. Therefore thoroughly sensing and mapping the current territory can help show us the way to the future.
Last – and what is maybe the most important lesson to take home from this example:
Innovation is a “lesson in humility,” which is the exact lesson Coca Cola President Don Keough announced as his learning. The good news is that in this state of humility, we must make sense of conflicting emotions, dynamics and circumstances. And thus, we can explore an indefinite number of options in regards to our human agency. Therefore, it may well be the most productive space to be in when it comes to innovation.
Ever tried? Ever failed? No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail Better. - Samuel Becket
About the author:
Erika Jacobi is the President of LC GLOBAL Consulting Inc., a boutique change and innovation consulting firm with offices in New York City and Munich, Germany. LC GLOBAL® leads organizations through important change and innovation processes to pave the way for unique transformation and sustainable growth. For more information visit www.lc-global-us.com or follow us on Youtube at http://bit.ly/1CPbMQ5.