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What Coca-Cola’s biggest failure can teach us about focusing on what’s working…

Last Updated:

June 26, 2024

Table of Contents

Welcome to Edition #57 of Did You Know? (DYK), the weekly newsletter by Gorick Ng, Harvard career adviser and Wall Street Journal Bestselling Author of The Unspoken Rules, where we deconstruct the untold story of how someone (or something) became successful—and what you can do to follow in their footsteps.

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Did You Know? Don’t ditch everything!

(1) A story from the past

Did you know? In the 1980s, Coca-Cola found itself losing market share to Pepsi, so it tried to sweeten its formula to make it taste more like Pepsi. It proved to be a disaster.

What happened? Pepsi, fighting neck to neck with Coke, launched “The Pepsi Challenge” where people would do a blind tasting of Coke vs. Pepsi. The results were clear: People preferred Pepsi, possibly because Pepsi had a “sweeter, more syrupy flavor.” 

In the face of rapidly declining sales, Coke decided to compete—by copying the competition.

Coke changed the flavor of its signature drink, called it “New Coke,” and thought it’d work. The logic made sense: If Coke was the more popular drink but people liked the taste of Pepsi, why not copy Pepsi?

The decision backfired. So much so that Coke fans didn’t just not buy “New Coke”—they petitioned in the thousands to bring back the “Old Coke”.

Overwhelmed by the response, Coca-Cola revived “Old Coke” and phased out “New Coke.” 

The twist? The saga led to people wanting the taste of Coke even more. “People all of a sudden wanted to actually taste the beverage again, and not just kind of feel good about it.” Coca-Cola’s sales shot up, overtook Pepsi’s, and Coke was declared the “winner” of “The Cola Wars”. 

39 years later, Coke continues to dominate the soda industry as the largest soft drink company in the world

So, the next time you find yourself wanting to hit “reset” (and change majors, jobs, or even your career) remember Coca-Cola—who changed everything… and lost everything.

Coca-Cola’s 1985 advertisement for “New Coke” (L) and the announcement for “Old Coke’s” return just a few months later (R). Images via The Coca-Cola Company.

(2) A strategy for your future

Did you know? Don’t forget about what works.

Having second thoughts could be the best thing that happens to you, as we saw with Denzel Washington. Or, it could work against you like what we saw with Coca-Cola. Despite its eventual rebound, what Coca-Cola’s disastrous formula change taught me is that, when things don’t seem to be working, don’t neglect what is working.

I see this mistake all the time among professionals—especially those who are in their early- to mid-careers. They jump… from finance to consulting to product management to chief of staff to consulting again.

And they don’t just jump functions. They also jump industries—from retail to insurance to healthcare to education… and more. While it may be true that each jump can be a hypothesis-testing opportunity (to figure out what you’re good at and interested in), each jump can also reset what I call your “ten-year clock.”

As we saw with everyone from Oprah to India’s Reliance Industries, success doesn’t happen overnight. It takes ten years. The challenge is, each time you make a big shift in career direction, you’re resetting your network and resume—and needing to start building your portfolio and track record from scratch.

Looking to make a change—but worried about pulling a Coca-Cola? Try filling in the following blanks:

(1) “I’m trying to fix the problem of _______ so am considering _______.”

  • E.g., “I’m trying to fix the problem of feeling like I’m not making an impact in my wealth management job, so am considering product management.”

(2) “If I switched from _______ to _______, I’d gain _______.”

  • E.g., “If I switched from wealth management to product management, I’d gain the ability to ‘own’ a product rather than just crunch numbers.”

(3) “At the same time, I’d lose _______ which I’ve spent the last _______ building and would need to build _______, which would take me _______.”

  • E.g., “At the same time, I’d lose my client relationships which I’ve spent the last 5 years building, and would need to build an entirely new portfolio, which could take me another 5 years.”

Now, ask yourself as Dune Director Denis Villeneuve did before switching from biology to filmmaking: “Is it worth it?”

Sometimes, a career switch is the best thing you can do! But beware of making a leap simply because you’re bored. Remember: What you’re looking for might take 10 years—which means there’s still much to learn and explore.

(By the way, research specifies that the 10-year rule applies with “deliberate practice”, meaning, this is your subtle cue to find a mentor or sponsor if you don’t have one already!)

I know it because I’ve experienced it: The day after I released The Unspoken Rules, my first instinct wasn’t to market the book—it was to forget about the book entirely and to go build a technology startup as was my goal in business school.

What a mistake that would have been in retrospect! Sure, building a tech company sounded cool, but what’s the point of writing a book if I’m just going to write it and forget about it? Looking back, I’m so glad I “stayed on the bus” because it wasn’t until much later that I started seeing the fruits of my labor.

Remember what works!


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