img_3081(from The Lesson Applied, December 1, 2011)

The good folks at Coca-Cola really want to innovate. They probably admire the late Steve Jobs. They’ve lots of neat ideas. Helping polar bears is one of them. So, to honor the polar bears (or at least ballyhoo their cause and plight), Coke folk changed the color of the can of their main product, Coca-Cola™. They made it white. You know, “polar” color.

And then came the uproar.

Coke buyers didn’t like it. Many returned the product, thinking that it was either Diet Coke (whose silver can is, actually, very similar to the new white can) or else a modified product. A few Coke drinkers said that the drink tasted different. There was general confusion, as reported in the Wall Street Journal:

Mel Cyr, a 17-year-old Coke drinker from Sheboygan Falls, Wis., said she and other teenagers attending this week’s National 4-H Congress in Atlanta scratched their heads after seeing the white cans. “You can’t change something that’s classic,” said Ms. Cyr.

4-H delegates from Wisconsin said their chaperone was mistakenly served a regular Coke on the flight to Atlanta from Milwaukee after requesting Diet Coke. “The flight attendants were really frustrated” and apologized for the mix-up, said Sara Harn, 17, of Brooklyn, Wis.

Obviously, this is another innovation from Coca-Cola that didn’t take — reminiscent of the infamous “New Coke” of a few decades ago. Coca-Cola’s clientele was so negative that the august Atlanta company switched plans, and is now switching back to the red cans we all know and love, far ahead of schedule.

A lesson for us all. Consumers are sovereign. You can innovate up and down your line, but if consumers aren’t buying, you aren’t selling.

The doctrine of consumer sovereignty was defended, in the 20th century, by two curmudgeonly economists, W.H. Hutt and Ludwig von Mises. The word choice was spot-on. “Consumers are sovereign” doesn’t mean that producers are meaningless. But the sovereign(s) have the last word; it’s the sovereign who must be pleased.

And that’s what capitalism is all about.

This lesson is probably hard on the innovators at Coca-Cola. Take the lame ending of that Wall Street Journal article:

But Ed Rice, the 81-year-old chief executive of Ozarks Coca-Cola/Dr Pepper Bottling Company, a longtime Coke distributor in Springfield, Mo., thinks the white can was innovative and engaged consumers. He downplayed confusion between the cans.

“If you put the cans side by side and blink, you might have to take a second look,” said Mr. Rice, who loaded his first Coke truck in 1945. “But I think there’s a distinct difference.”

Yes. But not distinct enough.

And besides, the customer is always right. Well, right in the one way that matters most on the market, right in being sovereign.

12/01/2011

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