Talk goes better with Coke. At wedding receptions, graduation parties, offices, homes and supermarkets, Coke's decision to change for the first time in 99 years the taste of the world's best-selling soft drink has become a universal conversation topic, like the weather or money or love. Everyone has an opinion: some like the new Coke, some hate it, others do not care at all. Some believe Coca-Cola's strategists made the marketing coup of the decade, others call it a monumental blunder.
The complainers, not surprisingly, are popping off loudest. To them, changing the taste of the real thing was like tampering with motherhood, baseball and the flag. The new drink, they say, is nerdy and has none of the old Coke's snap. Executives at Coca-Cola headquarters in Atlanta say they get 1,500 calls a day, almost four times the normal volume. Most of the callers, says Coke, are "concerned." And how. "I hate the new stuff," says Sharlotte Donnelly, 36, an anthropologist in Cincinnati. "It's too sweet. It tastes like Pepsi." Says Wendy Koskela, 35, vice president of an insurance brokerage in San Francisco: "Real Coke had punch. This tastes almost like it's flat."
Gay Mullins, 57, is too angry just to gripe. A Coke drinker for 50 years, he has formed an association in Seattle called the Old Cola Drinkers of America. The group's aim is to force Coca-Cola to switch back to the original + formula or at least release it to another bottler. Mullins first set up a hotline featuring a recorded pep talk: "Let's get Coca-Cola to start making the old Coke again." After receiving 60,000 calls, the line was disconnected last week. Mullins talks about filing a class action against the company, claiming that he and millions of other Coke lovers have been deprived of their freedom to choose the old flavor. He says he now plans to try for a seat on Coke's board of directors.
But his efforts may fizzle. Mullins has spent all of the $30,000 he committed to his protest, and his twelve-member staff may have to fight on as unpaid volunteers. To raise more money, the Old Cola Drinkers are selling T shirts for $6 that are embossed with a new-Coke can in a red circle crossed by the universal don't-do line.
Some sharp operators spotted opportunities in Coke's move. Dennis Overstreet, the owner of a wine store in Beverly Hills, bought 500 cases of the old stuff when he heard of the change. Two weekends ago, Overstreet sold the last of his stock, at $1.25 a 6 1/2-oz. bottle, or $30 a case. "They lined up around the block," he said. "It's the most amazing thing I've ever seen in my life." One customer: Rock Singer Al Stewart (Time Passages), who called from London and put five cases on his American Express card.
Weldon Tanner, 43, an Atlanta businessman, has been stashing the old Coke in his pantry since April 23, the day Coke announced the change. He often consumes six bottles a day, though, and had reduced his inventory to ten cases by the end of last week. Tanner plans to head north, to small towns in North Carolina, to look for more. "I plan to work the boondocks," he says, "and I'm sure I'll find some there."