“In order to show proper respect for your future, you must sometimes show some insensitivity to your past”. Such were the words and rationale of Roberto Goizueta, the former CEO of The Coca Cola Company, who 27 years ago changed the formula of the world’s most popular soft drink and launched a new product, imaginatively named “New Coke”. At the time Goizueta and his team were faced with a dilemma: the Pepsi challenge was in full flow and consumers seemed receptive to the idea of switching from Coke to its sweeter, blue packaged alternative. Fearing a loss of ascendency in the fizzy drinks duopoly the company took decisive action and in April 1985, amid great fanfare, Coca Cola was replaced by New Coke. 79 days and some 400,000 complaints later though, the original drink returned.
Fans of Cardiff City FC will be hoping the backlash to the announcement of their own rebranding yields similar results. From next season, the team nicknamed the Bluebirds will play their home games in a red kit bearing a new club crest. The switch from red to blue has been enforced as a condition of investment from Cardiff’s Malaysian owners, who feel the changes will “help [Cardiff] develop its brand and to allow it to expand its appeal to as wide an audience as possible”. Due to its association with prosperity and good fortune, red is seen as more attractive colour in the Far Eastern markets identified by the club as potentially lucrative. Although it may sound like marketing spiel borrowed from HSBC’s “the world’s local bank” campaign, Cardiff are adamant that they need to go along with this rebranding exercise to “safeguard the immediate and long-term future of the club.”
It’s fair to say the reaction from fans has been less than enthusiastic. In an effort to prevent their clubs nickname – the Bluebirds – becoming a painful and ironic reminder of what once was, supporters fought an unsuccessful campaign to keep Cardiff blue. Even for those who have taken the pragmatic approach – arguing a financially secure Cardiff City that plays in red is better than a potentially insolvent Cardiff City that plays in blue – last week’s announcement can hardly be considered a victory. Instead, it’s a rather depressing example of football’s financial realities running roughshod over supporter sentiment and years of tradition.
Unlike Cardiff, in the two years prior to the disastrous launch of New Coke, Coca Cola extensively canvassed its customers’ opinions about the proposed change. Over 200,000 Americans participated in taste tests, the results of which compelled Goziueta to boldly describe the launch of New Coke as “the surest move ever made”. There problem was that while Coca Cola had been making sure people liked the way their new drink tasted, they had neglected to consider customers’ sentimental attachment to the (old) brand. Unusually, the spectacular U-Turn that followed proved mutually beneficial to all parties. So pleased were customers to get their much loved product back, that they bought it in huge numbers, revitalising Coke’s stagnating sales and consolidating the company at the top of the pop pyramid. Indeed such was the speed with which Coca Cola snatched victory from the jaws of defeat in the New Coke debacle, that many have speculated that the entire episode was a marketing ploy from day one.
Sadly for Cardiff the world’s conspiracy theorists have yet to devise a plausible scenario in which this colorful saga turns out to be anything other than what it is: the epitome of all that’s wrong with modern football. The Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano described the game as “a primordial symbol of collective identity”. Alan Sugar said it’s “the only business in the world where it’s embarrassing to make money”. In a roundabout way both men made the same point: football is exceptional. It’s a game where fans’ emotional ties and tribal allegiances to clubs, their traditions, heritage and yes, the colour in which they play, takes precedence over commercial activities and the will to turn a greater profit. Except it isn’t. Football’s sacred cows have been on auction to the highest bidder for some time now. Clubs have moved cities, changed names, ceased to exist. The beautiful game has been contaminated by ugly language: leveraged buy-outs; administration; liquidation. For their owners, clubs are no longer symbols of local pride; they are global brands, whose merchandising potential must be maximized at all costs.
In 1985 fearing dissent among its customer base Coca Cola relented to their will. In 2012, the course of action taken by Cardiff’s owners shows, in black and white, that shirt sales in Asia are more important than the views of fans from the city whose name the club bears. And when the leopard’s spots are up for sale, it’s a sign that the tail must be well and truly wagging the dog.