Despite New Coke’s acceptance with a large number of Coca-Cola drinkers, a vocal minority of them resented the change in formula and were not shy about making that known — just as had happened in the focus groups. Many of these drinkers were Southerners, some of whom considered the drink a fundamental part of regional identity. They viewed the company’s decision to change the formula through the prism of the Civil War, as another surrender to the “Yankees”.
Company headquarters in Atlanta started receiving letters expressing anger or deep disappointment. Over 400,000 calls and letters were received by the company, including one letter, delivered to Goizueta, that was addressed to “Chief Dodo, The Coca-Cola Company”. Another letter asked for his autograph, as the signature of “one of the dumbest executives in American business history” would likely become valuable in the future. The company hotline, 1-800-GET-COKE, received 1,500 calls a day compared to 400 before the change. Coke hired a psychiatrist to listen in on calls and told executives some people sounded as if they were discussing the death of a family member.
They were, nonetheless, joined by some voices from outside the region. Chicago Tribune columnist Bob Greene wrote some widely reprinted pieces ridiculing the new flavor and damning Coke’s executives for having changed it. Talk show hosts and comedians mocked the switch. Ads for New Coke were booed heavily when they appeared on the scoreboard at the Houston Astrodome. Even Fidel Castro, a longtime Coke drinker, contributed to the backlash, calling New Coke a sign of American capitalist decadence. Goizueta’s own father expressed similar misgivings to his son, who later recalled that it was the only time the older man had agreed with Castro, whose rule he had fled Cuba to avoid.
Pepsi took advantage of the situation, running ads in which a first-time Pepsi drinker exclaimed “Now I know why Coke did it!” Pepsi gained few long-term converts over Coke’s switch, despite a 14% sales increase over the same month the previous year, the largest sales growth in the company’s history. The most alienated customers refused to buy New Coke rather than switch to Pepsi, or purchased large amounts of remaining old Coke, including one Texan who spent $1,000 on his hoard of the old formula. Coca-Cola’s director of corporate communications, Carlton Curtis, realized over time that they were more upset about the withdrawal of the old formula than the taste of the new one.
Gay Mullins, a Seattle retiree looking to start a public relations firm with $120,000 of borrowed money, formed the organization Old Cola Drinkers of America on May 28 to lobby Coca-Cola to either reintroduce the old formula or sell it to someone else. His organization eventually received over 60,000 phone calls. He also filed a class action lawsuit against the company (which was quickly dismissed by a judge who said he preferred the taste of Pepsi), while nevertheless expressing interest in landing The Coca-Cola Company as a client of his new firm should it reintroduce the old formula. In two informal blind taste tests, Mullins either failed to distinguish New Coke from old or expressed a preference for New Coke.
Still, despite ongoing resistance in the South, New Coke continued to do well in the rest of the country. But executives were uncertain of how international markets would react. Zyman heard doubts and skepticism from his relatives in Mexico, where New Coke was slated to be introduced later that summer, when he went there on vacation.
Goizueta publicly voiced a complaint many company executives had been making in private as they shared letters the company had received thanking them for the change in formula, that bashing it had become “chic” and that, as had happened in the focus groups, peer pressure was keeping those who liked it from speaking up in its favor as vociferously as its critics were against it. Donald Keough, the company’s president and chief operating officer, reported overhearing this exchange at his country club outside Atlanta:
“Have you tried it?”
“Did you like it?”
“Yes, but I’ll be damned if I’ll let Coca-Cola know that.”