Why Old Has The Advantage Over New

Walker SmithJuly 6, 20204 min

New Coke’s day in the sun lasted 79 days. It was introduced on April 23, 1985 as a much-heralded replacement for old Coke. But the outcry over taking the original formula off the market was so intense that the Coca-Cola Company reversed course and brought back old Coke 79 days later.

Under one brand name or another, new Coke stuck around until 2002. But it never displaced old Coke as the favorite. It was always the old that outshined the new.

The Cola Wars of the 1970s and 1980s were a contest for the taste buds of America. In a single-minded push to quash the Pepsi Challenge, the Coca-Cola Company (TCCC) conducted extensive preference testing that established beyond any statistical doubt that new Coke was a better tasting soda. But in the research, it was never explained to respondents that the better tasting new product would completely replace the old brand. So TCCC never collected data that could have surfaced the deep and abiding if not always obvious affection that people had for the brand. Of course, it’s surprising that TCCC didn’t appreciate this to begin with — or more likely, it’s surprising that TCCC allowed itself to get distracted and forget this — but it certainly learned its lesson the hard way about testing only for taste. TCCC’s head of research admitted as much when he said to The New York Times the day after the original formula was brought back, people “fell in love with the memory of old Coke.”

The lesson of new Coke is a critical principle to remember when contemplating whether something new and different is enduring or ephemeral.

New Versus The Memory Of The Old

When something is always at hand, people tend to take it for granted. But when it is abruptly taken away it becomes noticeable by its absence. For things with deep cultural connections, like old Coke, what people notice most is how fondly they remember it. In such cases, people want to get back what they have lost, which reinvigorates the old to the detriment and demise of the new.

During the pandemic lockdowns over the past several weeks, people have been doing a lot of new things to replace the old things abruptly taken away from them — more online shopping to replace in-store shopping; more virtual connections to replace face-to-face connections; more videos to replace other entertainments; more take-home and delivery to replace on-premise and in-person; and so forth. But even as they have been doing all of these new things, many people have also been longing for a return to the things that have been taken away.

The key question is how much of the new will remain as lockdowns are lifted. Certainly, some will remain. But much will go back to what it was before. Indeed, we see this already.

For example, Carnival Cruise lines reported that bookings jumped 600 percent when it announced that some of its cruise lines would reopen in August, which translates to a 200 percent year-over-year gain for August. Bars in Wisconsin were packed the day after the state’s supreme court threw out the governor’s stay-at-home order. Some stores in Belgium, including IKEA, Decathlon, and Action, reported long queues of people waiting in line on the day that all stores were allowed to reopen. In the U.K., DIY retailer B&Q experienced huge crowds when it reopened 155 stores during the fifth week of the lockdown there. Officials lamented the reckless abandon with which people crowded onto beaches and lakes over the U.S. Memorial Day weekend. In many U.S. states, reopening beaches, and even wearing masks, has become a matter of divisive politics.

As choices and options have reopened, many people — in fact, many more than expected — are flocking back to what they did before rather than sticking with the new things that they were doing during the lockdowns. People missed a lot of what was taken away, and many people missed these things so much that they have been willing to throw caution to the wind at the first opportunity to go back.

Not everything has gotten a boost. Some things, like airline bookings and bus tours, have yet to see any resurgence of demand. Perceptions of safety play a part in what’s come back and what has not, but it’s clear from how and what people have done that safety alone does not account for it. What then is the difference between new Cokes that stick and old Cokes that bounce back?

What Is Most Valued Is Easiest To See

It’s easy to pinpoint old Cokes. They are the products and activities with the greatest cultural resonance in people’s lifestyles. Such things tend to be taken for granted, so people don’t typically wear these things on their sleeves. But when asked, these are the things that people affirm are most expressive of their nostalgia for what they remember as the good life of the past, and thus these things are often most representative of people’s aspirations for the future as well.

Much of the talk about the post-pandemic new normal presumes that the involuntary yet requisite experimentation with new things during the lockdowns automatically means that old things will be forgotten and dropped as lockdowns are lifted. But people have not only been exposed to new things. They have also been reminded of old things they were forced to do without. That reminder can be a powerful motivator, and what it motivates is a return to the ‘not new normal.’

Oftentimes, new Coke doesn’t usher in anything new. Instead, it brings old Coke back with a vengeance. And when that happens, the future looks a lot more like the old normal than the new.

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