All Afizz Over the New Coke

Some hate the taste, but sales have never been better

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In Huntington Woods, Mich., Libby Lavine, 35, is drinking down her stock of 700 bottles and cans of Coke, and has begun a campaign to bring back the old Coke. Says she: "There is only one person who likes the new Coke and that is Bill Cosby. I want to get thousands of letters, and my husband and I will take them down to Atlanta and give them to the Coca-Cola company."

Brian Dyson, president of Coca-Cola USA, believes some people are tasting things in the new drink that are not there. Example: the new Coke is not less fizzy as some complain. "There is a zero difference in carbonation between the new and the old," he says. Dyson insists that the bickering will not work: "We are going to stick with what we have done."

It is still too early to tell how the new Coke is doing. The sketchy numbers out so far are distorted by the enormous publicity over the taste change. So swiftly did the word spread, says Coke, that 81% of the U.S. population knew of it within 24 hours, more people than were aware in July 1969 that Neil Armstrong had walked on the moon. By now, says Dyson, fully 96% of Americans, or 225 million people, know that Coke has altered its taste.

Coke officials say they are pleased by the early returns. In May, Coke sales shot up a sparkling 8% over the same month in 1984, double the normal growth rate. Some of the increase included sales of old Coke still on store shelves, but most of it was the new drink. That amounts to a lot of bubbles in a business in which every percentage-point increase in the market share adds $280 million in retail sales on a yearly basis. Coke claims its surveys show that 120 million Americans have tried the drink if only out of curiosity, and 75% of those say they will buy the new Coke again.

Archrival Pepsi has countered with its own survey showing that its sales were up 14% from those in the same month last year, its best gain ever. In a newspaper ad aimed at "all new Pepsi drinkers," the company claimed that "nearly half of those who have tried the new Coke say it's time to switch from Coke, and the overwhelming majority say they'll switch to Pepsi." Roger Enrico, president of Pepsi-Cola USA, said his surveys show that 60% of new Coke drinkers see it as "weaker in flavor delivery." But hold on, countercountered Coke. Pepsi's sales figures are distorted because they include Pepsi's entire array of soft drinks, notably Diet Pepsi and the new lemon-flavored Slice. Reliable figures will not be available until July or August.

Coke's change has indisputably put new zest into the $28 billion U.S. soft- drink business. Declares a Coke executive: "All of a sudden, a product that might have been taken for granted is alive." Concurs Dyson: "It generates electricity. We are having fun, trying to draw attention to make it all bubbling and effervescent. Let's face it, it is hype. It is the nature of the product." Even tiny Royal Crown has been drawn into the battle. "Does it leave you feeling flat?" an RC ad asks of new Coke. "Pick yourself up, there is a cola to turn to. RC Cola."

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