It’s a marketing campaign that has lived in infamy. Back in April 1985, Coca-Cola launched its first new recipe in 99 years to help put a modern spring back in the brand’s step . . . and it spectacularly backfired. The sugar water-loving public revolted, demanding the company reverse course. It took 79 days, but eventually the company reissued the original formula as Coca-Cola Classic, and soon the new formula disappeared forever.
The upcoming third season of the hit Netflix series Stranger Things takes place in 1985, and the show’s creators the Duffer Brothers included the infamous New Coke. Eyeing a potential brand partnership opportunity, Netflix reached out to Coca-Cola to see if it may want to revisit what’s widely considered its greatest failure. And in uncharacteristic fashion for a giant heritage brand, Coca-Cola marketing execs ended up embracing the idea enthusiastically.
“They wrote us into the third season in a fairly meaningful way, so they brought us the idea. And you can imagine that it wasn’t the idea that we were maybe expecting to hear,” says senior vice-president of strategic marketing Geoff Cottrill. “There was a moment, when anybody who’s been on this project sort of said, ‘Oh wow, are we . . . are we really gonna think about doing this?’ ”
Oh, and they did. Starting today (May 23) at 5 p.m. ET, Coca-Cola will release a limited number of 12-ounce cans of New Coke, with the original 1985 formula, as part of a bundle, through its site at cokestore.com/1985. Free cans of New Coke will also be available for a limited time via an Upside-Down-inspired vending machine in select cities, starting in New York and moving to other locations. The Duffer Brothers also directed a new Coke ad that will be playing in cinemas around the country.
Stranger Things has always been pretty meticulous about its period details, and Coca-Cola had provided the show with signage, packaging, and other branded bits in the show’s previous two seasons. This is decidedly more elaborate.
“We had the conversation about recreating New Coke in the limited run, and I think every single person when they were brought the idea, kind of scratched their head,” says Cottrill, given the product’s frosty reception 34 years ago. “Netflix brought us a really big idea. And we looked at ourselves in the mirror and said, there’s no way we can say no. You got to do that. ”
The move also embodies what Cottrill calls the cultural change happening within Coca-Cola in recent years, with CEO James Quincey and his leadership team really encouraging its marketers to try new things, make mistakes too, but to push forward. A year ago, Quincey challenged them to figure out how the brand could find its way into non-advertising platforms like Netflix in unobtrusive but creative ways. Cottrill and his team have been talking to Netflix about potential opportunities over the last couple of years, but the right one just hadn’t presented itself. “We were pretty clear that unless we could find a way to integrate organically and authentically, and add some level of value to the experience, then we weren’t going to just jump in.” It just so happened the right opportunity popped up in Hawkins, Indiana.
It all took about 10 months to put together. Cottrill says the partnership is quid pro quo, not a paid integration into the show, just a natural extension of how the brand was being portrayed anyway. Coke gets to appear in a highly anticipated Netflix show, and Netflix gets its show on Coke packaging in grocery stores all over the country.
Ultimately, the concern over celebrating an infamous mistake was overpowered by the idea of embracing its place in culture. “We wanted to find the right way to be there and to do it in a fun way, not take ourselves too seriously and also not take our place in the world for granted,” says Cottrill. “We’ve got to continue to push ourselves to do new and different things. We can’t do the same marketing tactics over and over again forever. We’ve got to evolve. So this was one of those chances.”