Using Circuit of Culture Lens to Analyze Failure of the New Coke
Internationalization of businesses has reaffirmed the significance of understanding the culture of a business and that of the consumers. Organizations that venture into new markets or produce new products that fail to conform to the prevailing consumer culture often end up being disappointed. Such a scenario is noted with the launch of Coke New, which was aimed at replacing the Coke Classic, which was highly valued by customers in the USA and other countries, namely Cuba, Mexico, and Canada. According to Tombleson and Wolf (2017), culture denotes patterns of shared and learned beliefs and behavior of a particular ethnic, social, or age group. Shared beliefs and behavior among people from a common country are described by Hofstede as national culture. It is important that a business understands the national culture of the country it seeks to set up operations. As noted in the case of New Coke, the Coca-Cola Company failed to acknowledge that the Old Coke was more like an American heritage that evoked emotions among customers. As such, the product defined a significant part of the American culture that the clients wanted to preserve. Stuart Hall introduced the circuit of culture to guide businesses on how best to analyze popular culture that influences consumer behavior. The analytical framework is composed of invisible elements, namely production, regulation, and consumption, while the visible elements include identity and representation (Cole, 2015). Both elements have a subtle influence on artifacts of popular culture, as is the case with New Coke. This brand is selected because it is synonymous with American popular culture. Guided by this backdrop, this paper uses the circuit of culture lens to analyze the failure of the New Coke. This report has one main section which details and analyzes the five elements of the circuit of culture.
The circuit of culture model summarizes the correlation between the five elements of culture. These elements are summarized in figure 1 below. This analysis explores each of these categories and how it affects the design of the product. It further elaborates how the design ultimately affects each of the aspects of the model.
Figure 1: Circuit of Culture Model (Du Gay et al. 2013)
This aspect describes how companies establish cultural norms and meanings through both visual and oral languages. The Coca-Cola brand has been in the market since 1892. As a result, the brand is strongly associated with the economic transformations that occurred in the USA. The company pioneered the soft drinks industry and has since been a representation of America’s popular culture (Xu, 2018). This cultural meaning is deeply encoded in the name and attributes of the brand. As much as Coca-Cola was the dominant brand controlling more than 60% of the market, its representation began dropping due to increasing competition from new brands such as Pepsi. By the 1970s, Coca-Cola had less than 24% of the market share. The negative trend in market share and sales growth motivated the new CEO, Roberto Goizueta, to champion a product change from the old Coke to New Coke. He envisioned that the new product would be a representation of the change in consumer behavior representing the new popular culture embraced by the younger drinkers, also known as the baby boomers (Xu, 2018). The blind taste tests showed a possibility for backlash, but the management continued with the planned introduction of the new Coke. The management assumed that the new product was a representation of the new popular culture expressed by the younger generation of consumers who were weight and health-conscious.
This component of the circuit of culture answers the question of how individuals, corporate, consumer groups, international entities, and national entities establish an identity with the design of an object (Du Gay et al., 2013). From the case study, the management wanted the new Coke to identify with the aspirations and health goals of the younger drinkers. This was a futuristic line of thinking as the younger generations would advance into influencing future trends in consumer behavior (Pendergrast & Crawford, 2020). Nonetheless, while creating this identity, the company failed to think of the identity of the older generation of consumers who had a deeper emotional attachment to the old Coke. The new product challenged the identity of both generations. For instance, the newer generation liked the new Coke; however, the indirect peer pressure from the older generations resulted in negatively skewed results depicting that both the young and old generations preferred to identify with the old Coke rather than the new Coke (McCowan, 2020). Surprisingly, even those who acknowledged that the new Coke brand was superior to the old Coke continued to deny this fact. This statement justifies the conflict between the desire to preserve the identity of the classic Coke brand versus a desire to transition into the future. In the case of Coca-Cola, the company had to oblige and stick with the old Coke that directly defined the identity of customers and that of the company.
The case study further explicates that the Southerners, where the old Coke originated, were more attached to the product than the rest of the country. As much as other parts of the world, including Mexico and Monaco, were not pleased with the new Coke, it is believed that their identity to the product was more emotional than that of the southerners who considered the brand as a heritage. The widespread resistance to the new Coke made the employees doubt the viability of the new brand. The company became dissatisfied and bowed to the pressure from the consumers. It is certain that the employees and other stakeholders also wanted to retain their old identity with the old Coke. According to some of the commentators, the old Coke was the real thing, a constant, and an unchanging product that did not deserve to be changed. Still, if Coca-Cola had to continue with its intention of introducing a new Coke, it would be pressured to sell the old formula to another company. This way, the company could preserve the identity of the old Coke and that of the older generation of customers who had a deeper emotional attachment to the product.
The case study describes that the physical identity of the new and old Coke had to be adjusted to differentiate the two brands. Initially, the new Coke was packed in the old Coke packaging. The old cans used to package new Coke were labeled with cold colored tops to ease identification and differentiation. Coca-Cola’s CEO made deliberate steps to create an identity for the new Coke as a rounder, more harmonious, and bolder flavor. He defended the change in the product noting that the secret formula used to manufacture the product was not inviolable and sacrosanct. The new Coke was made to have a sweeter taste. Even as the customers were willing to purchase the new Coke, the backlash from consumer groups and activists advocating for the old Coke made the younger consumers question their intention of identifying with the new Coke. This explanation justifies how identity influences the design of products. In this manner, Coca-Cola was forced to revert to the old design to keep up with the customers’ demands.
This element of the circuit depicts how a product is designed and produced technically and culturally. Understanding these aspects of production helps connect a brand to its customers by identifying with the key elements of their culture that trigger an emotional attachment. From the case study, the technical production of Coke entailed designing a secret formula that was sold to bottlers in the form of syrup (Jabbar, 2016). The companies would then make insignificant adjustments to the formula before mass-producing the product for their respective customers. The adjustments included using either cane sugar or high fructose corn syrup to produce the final product. Suppliers were contracted to distribute the product to the end customers. The formula was also sold directly to drinking fountains in fast food restaurants such as McDonald’s and through soda vending machines (Xu, 2018). These fountains produced their Coke and served it directly to customers. Sports venues and concessions equally purchased the Coca-Cola pouring rights to serve the product to end customers.
Regarding cultural production, the Coca-Cola Company had been in operation for a long time, thus nurturing a deep sense of ownership from the customers. According to the feedback and backlash received after the introduction of the new Coke, it became inevitable that Coke had created a deep cultural symbol for the Americans. The case study reflects on the role of Coke during World War II, where more than 60% of Americans drank Coke (Jabbar, 2016). The deeply engraved cultural association between Coca-Cola and American freedom was created in how the company marketed itself, especially during the summers. For instance, it used terms like the real thing. Besides, the Coke brand had become synonymous with the traditional American cozy lifestyle as consumers preferred drinking the product as they relaxed in the hot summer afternoons (Xu, 2018). Apparently, the design of the bottle and the colors of the product were similar to those of the American flag, and this connection created a deep sense of cultural connection that made the Americans indebted to the success of the brand and vice versa.
This element of the circuit describes how the object of design is used. It also describes the inherent meaning attached to using the product. This section will analyze how the Coke brand is bought and consumed. Physical consumption of the Coke brand entails purchasing the product from retail shops, sports venues, fountain sales, and soda vending machines (Xu, 2018). The product can be consumed independently or accompanying a meal, especially in fast-food restaurants. The Coke soft drink beverage is refreshing and cooling when served cold. The pricing of the product makes it affordable and, thus, consumed in plenty during the hot summers. The physical consumption of Coke around the USA created symbolic consumption that quickly spread to all the other countries, even those that did not like other American products. For instance, Fidel Castro of Cuba was a longtime Coca-Cola drinker in spite of Cuba’s prolonged political and ideological conflicts with America. To him, the Coca-Cola brand was symbolic of American capitalism. According to Grünkemeier, Plesske, and Rostek, J. (2017), capitalism is an economic system that promotes private ownership of means of production for profit. This political and economic system had become widely accepted by most countries around the world, and this made American products admirable internationally. This was the case of Coca-Cola, which had benefited from capitalism. Apart from symbolizing capitalism, Coke also symbolized the cozy American lifestyle. Most Americans felt like consuming the product made them more American, and thus, they did not want the production of their favorite product changed in any way.
The element of regulation, answers the question how an artefect, in this case, the new Coke either conforms or breaks established regulatory and legal boundaries. It further describes how the product challenges public notions. Du Gay et al. (2013) explain that this element could also explain how products are developed, designed, and used. Evidently, the new Coke was intended to break an established boundary by Coca-Cola. The company had never thought of abandoning the old Coke for the new Coke. The resulting transition triggered resentment from consumers who demanded that the artefact conforms to established regulatory boundaries. By making the change, Coca-Cola also challenged the notion of public space. It realized that the Coke brand was not its private property but rather, a public property. This is noted in the overwhelming protests launched against the new Coke inspite of its superior performance in taste tests. Because of the strong connection to the product, the customers felt like it was their duty to regulate the representation, identity, production, and consumption of the product (Schmidt, 2016). In the long run, they influenced the design of the product by forcing Coca-Cola to reverse their decision to replace the old Coke with the new Coke. The regulation was evident through the noisy projects, boycotts, and public backlash of the USA (Dass & Vinnakota, 2019). Bottlers also filed lawsuits rejecting the new formula. The regulation from these stakeholders forced Coca-Cola to retain the old Coke brand.
The design artifact of the old Coke continues to be a significant part of the Coca-Cola Company and its loyal customers all over the world. The brand has been so symbolic, both technically and culturally, and thus, it is hard to change. Any attempt by the company to introduce a new product has often been met with rejection forcing it to retain the old Coke brand. In spite of changes in popular culture, the old Coke continues to dominate over any new entrants such as new Coke. The circuit of culture model explains this trend noted with the old Coke. The framework explicates the complex relationship in the attachment between cultural identity and the old Coke brand of sodas. The model explains that the deep-rooted emotional attachment between customers and the old Coke was motivated by the way the brand represented the American culture to the world. As seconded by Castro, the Coke brand represented the American capitalistic system, which was admired worldwide. The product was important in defining the identity of the Americans and the Coca-Cola brand. Additionally, the product was produced in a manner that evoked deep cultural connections to the consumers, therefore, making it irreplaceable. The consumption of the old Coke was highly valued, and thus, customers engaged in boycotts and protests to protect the brand against any form of alteration that could interfere with the original design of the product. Even though the customers rejected the old Coke, they continued to acknowledge changes in the shape of the bottle. This means that the taste of the product was more symbolic and significant than the outside packaging. This statement signifies that Coca-Cola could easily redesign the bottle of their drink but not the content of the bottle.
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