The “New Coke” Experiment – Does it tell us Something About fan Behaviour?

One day very recently, I was browsing YouTube (as you often do) and I came across a very interesting video posted on Today I Found Out (one of the several channels run by Czech Republic-residing British YouTuber Simon Whistler). This video was about a ‘failed’ marketing experiment that was done years ago by the Coca-Cola company. In this experiment they decided that, to get a leg up on their age-old competitors Pepsico, they would create a new, better tasting formula for Coca-Cola which they eventually ended up calling New Coke.

Whilst I won’t get massively into the details because the video explains that much better than I could, there was one part of the findings of the blind taste tests that really stood out to me. When those who had preferred New Coke in the blind tests were told that the version they had preferred was the new one, they not only got angry at the testers but they would also bully other people who were involved in the experiment into saying that they didn’t like it as well. I found this incredibly fascinating, because it seems to provide an example of the kind of behaviour that hardcore fans of certain artists display when those artists decide to break away from the sound they’ve traditionally pushed out into the public to something that’s obviously very different.

OK… I know this sounds a bit far-fetched. Just hear me out. Think about it. What happened when a band like, say, Bring Me The Horizon or Incubus did their massive change ups in sound? In the case of BMTH that would be That’s The Spirit and in the case of Incubus that would be A Crow Left Of The Murder (yes I know Make Yourself was a big genre shift too, but A Crow… was the one that really made longtime fans mad, for reasons I’ll go into as I explain). That’s The Spirit and A Crow… were both experimentations by metal/hard rock bands into territory more associated with pop, alternative rock, progressive rock and, in the case of BMTH, the more synth-heavy end of things. In Incubus‘s case, there was a change in the band’s lineup that went along with it. Ben Kenney replaced Alex “Dirk Lance” Katunich in the bassist spot as well the band’s DJ Chris Kilmore changing his role from exclusively being a DJ to being more of a general synth/keyboard/sound FX/samples guy. As many people know, the fan reception for these albums were very poor, with a lot of anger directed towards the band and even still to this day many fans refuse to listen to BMTH beyond their Sempiternal era or Incubus beyond their Morning View era.

But, here’s the thing. Were those albums really that bad? No, they weren’t! That’s The Spirit arguably was one of Bring Me The Horizon‘s most successful albums ever and it lifted them from being the sole preserve of metal fans to being a chart topping band in pretty much the entire developed world. Incubus embracing softer textures and a more mature approach to songwriting helped them to grow massively as a band too – they wouldn’t be playing the huge shows they do now without albums like A Crow Left Of The Murder or Light Grenades. So, if they were so successful and so musically great, then why do fans still utterly hate them so much? The answer can be found in the results of the New Coke experiment…

One of the biggest conclusions people have come to in regards to the New Coke experiment is that not only is marketing and branding incredibly important, but nostalgia is one of the potent marketing tools of all time as well. This type of nostalgic branding is something that takes years and years to build up and is especially impressionable on people who discover those things during their childhood or teen years. This is where the link between the New Coke experiment and established bands choosing to genre-shift comes into play. Bring Me The Horizon, for example, built themselves a certain brand and image very well as they travelled up the ranks of the metal scene of their native Britain and then, later, globally. People knew exactly what they were about and exactly what they were going to get. These people then developed a nostalgia for the original BMTH sound and, crucially, the original BMTH brand. So, when That’s The Spirit came around and the band morphed into something that was almost completely unrecognisable as BMTH, people shouted and they shouted a lot. This vocal minority of fans became so loud their opinion became the dominant one and as a result probably pressured a lot of other fans into also rejecting the new music, even if they had never even heard it before!

So, how do you escape the New Coke effect? It seems that the best way to do it might not be to put any expectations of genre at all in how you present yourself as an artist. The genius progenitors of this kind of marketing are the Manchester-based Hot Milk, who actively shun any notion of genre at all, making up the label of “emo powerpop” to please the genre nerds that seem to exist absolutely everywhere and cracking jokes like “did you just assume my genre?!?” in interviews and on social media. If there’s no expectations of genre in your branding, then nobody’s going to have a tantrum when you do change things up. At least that’s the theory (A GAME THEORY! – I’m sorry, I know that was awful…). Time will tell if that actually works. Until then, the New Coke experiment is still a very odd and cool little story that showcases one of the weirdest discoveries about human psychology that nobody seems to really know the answer to that I’ve ever come across.

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