Coke’s ‘Feisty’ Stab at Millennials

The soft-drink giant goes bold again with new flavors. How leaders make such calls.

It dates back to at least 1971, with the soon-to-be-famous jingle—“I’d like to buy the world a Coke”—aimed at baby boomers who, at the time, were still young. The next decade, the soft-drink giant was at it again, this time with its first new brand in almost a century, Diet Coke. Finally, a decade hence, came a line of sports drinks (Powerade) to meet the demands and tastes of the increasingly influential workout culture. 

Now comes something new again, only this time it’s a group of colorful new Diet Coke flavors aimed at a whole different generation: millennials. The company is serving zippy new tastes—you’ve seen them, Feisty Cherry, Ginger Lime, Twisted Mango, and even Zesty Blood Orange—in skinny cans reminiscent of Red Bull and touting flavors that bring to mind Lacroix—a youthful phenomenon in its own right. 

Move over, boomers—again. Along with Coke, a host of brands are reinventing at least a part of themselves for a younger audience. Netflix, for one, moved some time ago to “time shifting,” because it believed millennials wanted to binge-watch on their own schedules. It also capitalized on the more youthful desire for personalization by offering each viewer its own interface with its own list of content and recommendations. 

Although they are a trillion-dollar demographic, the buying power of millennials still doesn’t equal boomers’ (yet). But they are the future, representing 80 million consumers and a growing number of executives. The idea, of course, is to catch them as they move into power-dominant positions, including leadership roles. “Millennials, in particular, expect a certain level of personalization,” says Caren Fleit, managing director of Korn Ferry’s Global Marketing Officers practice. “They expect that brands will know what they want and give it to them.”

Deciding how and when to introduce new products into a new consumer and business environment requires thoughtful leadership. It means balancing not only consumer tastes but the tides of societal change. Coke had a hundred-year history of selling sugary drinks. Suddenly, it confronted a profound societal shift away from excess carbs, so it buffed up a line of diet sodas while shoring up sales of its signature sugary drinks. Then it transitioned to sports drinks, different flavors of soda, sports drinks, bottled water, and even milk. 

Cannibalizing your company is, of course, a risk. But marketing pros often quote Steve Jobs: “If you don’t cannibalize yourself, someone else will.” 

If brands are launched as additions, leadership must ask whether these new products stay true to the master brand ethos. If the brand stands for something, so should the newer products. But the stakes are high, since piling on too many new products can dilute a powerful name. “The trick is to be accretive so that one plus one equals three,” Fleit says, “because seminal brands don’t come along very often.”