The story of New Coke is more well known and famous than even the Death of Superman and the Breaking of the Bat, and easily as controversial. No-one can deny that the white Coca-Cola logo on a red background is as iconic as the Superman logo, the Batman logo, and the Mickey Mouse silhouette. These four brand logos are world famous and are arguably the cornerstones of modern Capitalist Americana.
Depending on who you talk to, New Coke is either the biggest marketing disaster of all time, or the greatest advertising triumph ever engineered.
30 years ago on April 23rd, 1985, Coca-Cola announced that it would discontinue Coca-Cola in favour of its new alternative: New Coke. The reasons behind the decision vary from source to source, but this was either done as a knee-jerk reaction to Pepsi-Co. gaining a strong foothold in the market as the “taste of a new generation” (through excessive and expensive advertising contracts with the most famous people of the day, such as Michael Jackson), or as an exercise in saving money, with the new formula rumoured to save up to $50 million a year. There is a third alternative reason that’s been put forth which we’ll come to in a moment.
Just four months later, “Classic” Coke – as it was now branded – returned to the market, with New Coke staying around in one form or another (remember Coke II?) before finally being discontinued in 2002.
It has been cited by many as the greatest marketing disaster of all time, and is apparently still taught in business schools as a lesson in “how not to…”.
The Coca-Cola propaganda machine tells it a slightly different way, reframing the story as how they took the biggest risk in marketing history: “The return of original formula Coca-Cola on
July 11, 1985, put the cap on 79 days that revolutionized the soft-drink industry, transformed The Coca-Cola Company and stands today as testimony to the power of taking intelligent risks, even when they don’t quite work as intended.”*
Now we come to the third school of thought, a school of thought that shows that whether it was the intended consequence or not, it was marketing GOLD. “Nevertheless, the company’s stock went up on the announcement, and market research showed 80% of the American public was aware of the change within days”, and by year’s end, with the return of the original formula “Coca-Cola Classic was substantially outselling both New Coke and Pepsi. Six months after the rollout, Coke’s sales had increased at more than twice the rate of Pepsi’s.”
Although much of the evidence available suggests Coca-Cola made a bad choice, no-one can argue that it had a very, very positive outcome. Nothing reinforces an addict’s love for a product like not being able to have the product for a while.
Now we come to DC Comics.
Since September, 2011, the only way to experience DC Comics’ iconic superhero universe in comic-book form has been with the New 52. Taking classic, quintessential brands like Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman, and filtering them through their “new formula” with a brand new #1, after cancelling all of their titles (ending an unbroken seventy-one-year run of numbering on the Action Comics and Detective Comics titles). Although sales initially spiked, some retailers feared that every jumping-on point for a casual reader acted as a double-edged sword, offering a jumping-off point for long-term readers (whether this is a good or a bad thing is subjective, and covered at length in Warren Ellis’ brilliant-yet-cantankerous Come In Alone). The idea was reinforced with Marvel’s various reboots arguably confusing the marketplace. Many DC titles had returned to their pre-52 levels or lower within two years of the reboot, was this normal comic-book attrition, or something more?
To me, the most interesting thing has been watching the licensing wing of DC Entertainment largely ignoring these redesigned characters, and continuing to use the Classic DC look for the majority of its products. Be it mugs, T-shirts, mass-market toys (not including those aimed at the Direct Market), Ties, video-games, all of the Lego products, and even thongs, they all tend to use the iconic look versions of the characters – the ones that are burned into our collective consciousness. Even with a movie that took $291 million, which shares the non-underpanted look of Superman with the New 52, the majority of licensed Superman products still feature the classic underpanted look.
Whether this has been because license-holders choose the classic characters over the new interpretations, or because the style guides that DC issue to licensees contain only the classic looks (in my opinion, this is much more likely) is almost irrelevant. Either way, it shows that the licensing wing understands the power of their branding better than the comics wing.
But DC Comics (and when we say that, in this case, we mean primarily Dan Didio, Bob Harras, and Geoff Johns) are not stupid. They know what we want, and as Geoff Johns has very passionately stated this week by quoting the first issue of DC: Rebirth; “I love this world, but there is something missing”; he talks about wanting to “get back to the essence of the characters”.
I’ve often said in conversation with my friends that the biggest problem with DC isn’t the New 52; it actually all started with Identity Crisis in 2004. Before that, DC were carrying on just fine as they were. Kingdom Come had set them a loose target of “legacy” to work towards, and the company often flirted with ideas like Zero Hour and Hypertime, to tweak with continuity problems in the wake of the original 1986 Crisis on Infinite Earths. Mostly, however, they were ticking over nicely as a monthly publishing house. When Identity Crisis happened and was a massive success, suddenly all eyes were upon them. For the first time in a long time, we had a DC title in our store that was as easy to sell to the Marvel customers as to the DC hardcore (at Comic Connections, our numbers for Identity Crisis were equal to our orders for Civil War, just for some context). As with all big crossover event books, the inevitable question is: What’s next?
Rather than carrying on as normal, DC got caught in the crossover event trap: always working towards the next big crossover with a weekly book titled 52, an Omac Project, Infinite Crisis, One Year Later, then a Countdown, and a Final Crisis, along the way latching on to the arbitrary “52” as if it were the lone life-jacket aboard the Titanic.
For me, I knew something was wrong with DC about the time of One Year Later. Maybe it was simply that I’d also got caught up in the hype machine, expecting a big event coming just around the corner. Maybe it was event fatigue, or crossover burnout, but somewhere on the journey, I lost interest in those heroes whose stories I’d spent the majority of my life reading and the majority of my adulthood selling. It seemed it was no longer enough just to have Superman, Wally West, Kyle Rayner, Bart Allen, and Tim Drake at the heart of some awesome stories, and after a few more years of tired events and arguably confused crossovers (your mileage may vary), DC did the unthinkable and started over.
I don’t want to be that guy who hates change and is scared of anything new. I came to comics during the Death of Superman, Knightfall, and then the Spider-Man Clone Saga. I recognise Hal as much for Paralax as Green Lantern. I’m every bit as big a fan of Connor Hawke and Connor Kent as I am Ollie Queen and the adventures of Superman when he was a boy. In a comic-book world where change is a constant, we almost see a generational pattern emerge, where every third generation wants to go back to what they grew up with, after a second generation has tried something new (see every Jeph Loeb comic ever). I guess it was my turn to be the old guy lamenting the passing of “his” universe. I hate the entitled sentiment of character ownership you get from some fans so excuse me for this, but I really felt like my DC universe ended in 2006, and although I did try several titles from the New 52 line-up, I never quite found the book for me (even the big success story of the New 52; Snyder’s Batman, did nothing for me). I flick in and out from time to time, and I have American Alien and Superman: Lois and Clark in my “to read” pile so I’m still trying, dammit, but I have to admit that I found Ennis’ cynical and irreverent All-star Section Eight miniseries closer to the characters I recognise than anything portrayed in a current “mainline” title – and this came from a writer who has openly professed his hatred of most superheroes (especially Green Lantern).
Maybe we had just started to take these characters for granted, and if so, then the New 52 definitely made me realise what I liked, – nay, loved – about them in absentia.
The question is; was this always DC’s intent? Did they deprive us of their classic formula for five years to make us appreciate “the real thing”?
Geoff Johns states that “Rebirth is an ongoing mission for us” to “build a better universe”. That might be the case. I hope so. For me, I just want DC Rebirth to give me that taste of Classic Coke that I’ve so sorely missed these last five years.