Avoiding a consumer backlash by doing the right kind of product testing

There can be consumer backlash when much-loved brands reformulate their product.
Martin Dinkele

July 23, 2018

With the Soft Drinks Industry Levy kicking in at the start of April 2018 the category is in the limelight. Notwithstanding the fact that the initiative is a regressive tax (less well-off people pay a higher proportion of their disposable income on soft drinks); that obesity has been rising as fast as sugar consumption has been falling in recent years; and that only 3% of calories come from soft drinks anyway, it’s a tax that has delighted anti-sugar campaigners.

Similar sugar exercises have been introduced in various countries. France took the plunge six years ago, while Norway has been at it for quite a bit longer - since 1922. The levy might have its critics, but few will disagree that in terms of the global clampdown on sugar consumption, the UK is well behind the curve. Each country that has implemented the sugar tax has been working with different levies under different sugar thresholds and drinks criteria, making overall success difficult to assess. However, to date, there’s no evidence of a reduction in obesity. Mexico introduced a sugary drink tax in 2014 and a 6% decline in sales has since been reported. This equates to just 16 fewer calories a day, not much when an adult man needs 2,500 calories to maintain a normal weight. As a result of this lack of clarity, the main soft drink companies in the UK have responded in different ways:

However, there can be consumer backlash when much-loved brands reformulate their product. In 2011 Twining’s Earl Grey Tea changed its recipe, leading consumers to create a forceful social media campaign which succeeded in bringing back the original. Makers Mark reduced their ABV to 37.5% in 2013 before quickly backtracking as drinkers resisted.

Most famously, this occurred with Coca Cola, a story that has been depicted widely including in Malcolm Gladwell’s “Blink”, and by Thomas Oliver in his 1986 book “Real Coke, the Real Story”. But most importantly, it highlights the importance of doing the right type of product testing of new variants before changing the recipe.

In the early 1970’s Coca Cola dominated the market and Pepsi was the upstart who decided to focus on product appeal by launching the Pepsi Challenge. Consisting of around 13,000 blind head-to-head tests of the two brands, the Challenge was conducted in shopping malls and stores across the US, with the result that 56% preferred the taste of Pepsi over Coca Cola. Pepsi then reinforced the findings through TV advertising showing the Pepsi Challenge in action – you can find lots of examples on YouTube. This mixture of product testing and marketing worked; in 1972, 18% of soft drink users Americans exclusively drank Coca Cola, 4% Pepsi. By the early 1980’s Coca Cola was drunk exclusively by 12%, Pepsi by 11%. 


Needless to say, Coca Cola were concerned, and their own internal tests confirmed that Pepsi was indeed preferred on blind head-to-head tests. They developed New Coke to counter this and after repeated reformulations were convinced they had the product which was preferred to Pepsi on the same tests. Launch took place in 1985 with a huge marketing budget. And there was a huge public backlash – to say consumers did not like the new variant is putting it mildly. There were public protests, boycotts and bottles being emptied into the streets in several cities.  After 79 days Coca Cola withdrew the product from the market and relaunched the original, Coca Cola Classic.  It was called the “biggest marketing own goal of the century”.

The reason this backfired was because Coca Cola did not seem to appreciate the difference between testing designed to make product claims (head-to-head sip preference tests) and product testing for liquid development purposes. Pepsi has a product with an instant taste appeal, one almost purpose-designed to win a head-to-head blind sip test. They ran the Pepsi Challenge to be able to make product claims, and Coca Cola perpetuated the problem by designing a product to then beat Pepsi on the same type of test.

In reality (and unlike taste tests), people drink a whole can or bottle, sometimes more, and on more extended drinking Coke comes into its own and the sweeter Pepsi product can be less attractive. This is also true of beer and spirits brands looking to reduce the ABV – such changes to the taste can only become apparent after a few glasses. In real life consumers have a drink and if they like it they will buy it again – they don’t take a sip of two unknown options and then decide. And finally, they buy the brand not just the liquid, and in the case of Coca Cola they buy into 100 years of rich imagery and associations.

The ideal way to product test for recipe changes would include a Triangle test (to test whether consumers can taste, or ‘spot’, the difference between the current and new recipe); Monadic taste testing, where matched samples of regular drinkers taste and rate multiple cans/glasses of the new and current recipes blind; and a test of the new recipes against the brand (not blind), so that drinkers are rating the actual taste against their taste expectations and experience. We have done such testing with some of the nation’s favourite cider and beer brands, which has given some the confidence to make the change and others the prior warning they needed, along with guidance on how to adapt the new variant to further suit consumer taste and perception.

Brands who change their recipe on the basis of a head-to-head blind sip test results can almost expect a public backlash. The new recipe hasn’t been tested properly – on extended drinking, monadically, among regular drinkers who know and love the taste of the brand. Let’s hope this isn’t the case with Lucozade Energy and Irn Bru.

Morar HPI Limited is part of MIG Global and part of the Next15 Group.

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