In 1985, The Coca-Cola Company introduced a new formula for their classic beverage. The decision was backed by market research and analysis, interviews, focus groups, and taste-tests... and initially looked like a good idea. However, there was a huge backlash when consumers realized the new formula was completely replacing the old, and that they'd no longer have access to the drink they initially fell in love with. After protests started to break out, the company decided to bring the old formula back to the market as "Classic Coke," and they all lived happily ever after.
It's not such a terrible story, and Coke handled it the right way considering all the information available to them. They were trying to be transparent, letting their customers provide feedback and access to "New Coke" before it was available on the shelves. All the analyses suggested the formula would do better, but they forgot one important bit of transparency: they didn't tell people they were taking away the old stuff.
In retrospect, Coca-Cola handled the situation well (though at first, they tried too hard to defend their decision instead of continuing to listen to their consumers). They were transparent about the product change, in the same way they could have been transparent through today's social media outlets.
However, this is a prime example of the power of a company's brand. Throughout the process, Coke never gave its consumers a chance to comment on the brand. People didn't need something entirely new, they just needed something a bit sweeter to add to the existing product.
Social media has the potential to take transparency one step further - to expose a company's brand to comment and criticism. Had Facebook and Twitter been around in 1985, the company would have realized that people draw emotional connections to an historical brand name like Coke. You can't fault them for a lack of transparency... hindsight is 20-20. But thankfully, today there are new tools that provide companies access to consumer opinions of their brand identity.
To wrap up this three-part series on public relations and social media, I just want to drive home the power and importance of social media outlets, negative and positive. Companies who embrace transparency and work with the bloggers and Facebook users who have emotionally-vested interests in the brand have much more potential for success in today's marketing world.
Please feel free to add your own comments, thoughts, and case studies that involve social media. I'd love to hear them!