The man in charge of finding a new ad agency for JCPenney is Sergio Zyman, we noted two days ago. Zyman is a longtime marketing consultant, but he remains most famous for being the executive who helmed Coca-Cola’s replacement of its top brand with New Coke in the 1980s.
New Coke didn’t last long, of course. It’s one of the most oft-told tales of marketing: Coca-Cola was forced into a humiliating climbdown when it emerged that the nation did not, in fact, want Coke Classic to be replaced with a new formula.
Generally, however the story goes that this was a genuine effort inside Coke to beat Pepsi, and that the company really thought it was onto a winner for several months before it reintroduced Coke Classic.
But back in 2011, Zyman gave an interview to Ad Age in which he admitted something new: that he knew New Coke was going to be a disaster almost from the day of its launch. He also said that between the April 1985 New Coke launch and the July reversal, he was secretly working on the relaunch of Coke while insisting in media interviews that New Coke was fantastic. Those interviews, he knew, were based on a lie, he tells Ad Age:
I was sitting in Atlanta. I was manning the press conference while Roberto was in New York, and a reporter said, “What if it doesn’t work?” and Roberto said, “You don’t understand — it’s going to work.” I turned around and said, “Oh, man, the press is going to kill us.” And, sure enough, by the next day we knew we were in trouble.
… [At one point] we were on a company plane and [President] Don Keough turned around to me and said, “Are you doing something?” and I said, “I am, sir,” and I got up and went to the back of the plane. That was the only time I said anything, because I couldn’t say anything. We could not say publicly to anybody that we had questions or doubts about the fact that New Coke was a great success. Every day we had a million interviews and said this is going to be fantastic. That was a lie.
Zyman and his team worked in secret on the relaunch of Coke right the way through the actual launch of New Coke. Eventually, he says, management got it into its head that Coke had to be brought back, and Zyman’s reintroduction of “Coke Classic,” as it came to be known, went ahead.
It’s hoary old stuff, of course. We’re not suggesting that Zyman tells lies for a living. But JCPenney is in a bit of a New Coke situation — it bought former CEO Ron Johnson’s view that the chain had to be redesigned from top to bottom as a completely different brand, and now — after a 30 percent sales collapse — it realizes that was probably a mistake.
Let’s hope Zyman has a secret plan for “JCPenney Classic” up his sleeve.
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