Consumers Seeing Red Over White Coke Cans

Coca-Cola shifting gears on seasonal packaging over public's reaction

ATLANTA -- Coca-Cola Co. is switching back to its traditional red can just one month after rolling out its flagship cola in a snow-white can for the holidays. New seasonal cans in red will start shipping by next week, as white cans--initially expected to be in stores through February--make an exit, said the Wall Street Journal.

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While the company has frequently rung in the holiday with special can designs, this was the first time it put regular Coke in a white can. Some consumers complained that it looked confusingly similar to Diet Coke's silver cans, said the report. Others felt that regular Coke tasted different in the white cans, it added, and still others argued that messing with red bordered on sacrilege.

Coke regularly tweaks its packaging to create buzz and has a long tradition of holiday marketing, and says it helped shape the image of Santa Claus in his red suit with its 1930s advertising. Other Christmases past have featured snowflakes and polar bears, which appear on this season's cans.

Coke says this year's campaign is part of a partnership with the World Wildlife Fund to highlight global warming's threat to bears' Arctic habitat. Coke is contributing up to $3 million to conservation efforts.

"The white can resonated with us because it was bold, attention-grabbing'' and "reinforced'' the campaign theme, Scott Williamson, a spokesperson for the beverage company, told the newspaper. Coke's marketing executives wanted a "disruptive" campaign to get consumers' attention, he added.

The can-color debate pales next to the uproar of 1985, the paper said, when Coke replaced its flagship cola with New Coke by changing the recipe, only to re-launch "classic'' Coke a few weeks later amid a consumer revolt.

Atlanta-based Coke said that it's happy with the campaign and that critics of the white can represent a minority. "The can has been well received and generated a lot of interest and excitement,'' saidWilliamson.

Coke says it will distribute more than one billion white cans and roughly the same number of seasonal red cans, which also include polar-bear images. The special red version is "a way to maintain the excitement'' until the campaign ends in February, Williamson said.

But the company initially said it would distribute more than 1.4 billion white cans in a press release that did not mention the red cans, said the Journal. The company now says red cans will be in the majority by Christmas and that there likely won't be any white cans on store shelves by the time February rolls around. A spokesperson told the paper that a red holiday version was always part of its plans, but wouldn't comment on whether the timing had changed.

Coke said it became aware of consumer complaints through Internet postings and some telephone calls to the company. Many Internet comments have been critical of the white cans. Some Coke fans emailed the company's official blog to complain about the company wading into the issue of climate change.

It isn't clear exactly how big the consumer reaction to the white cans was, said the report.

Coke said that it hasn't tweaked the taste of its cola and that protecting polar bears is a worthwhile initiative. It recently added a "fact sheet'' on its website highlighting how white Coke cans are distinct from silver Diet Coke cans. Among the differences: Regular Coke is labeled "Coca-Cola'' and states the calories at the front of the can, while Diet Coke's holiday can--silver as always--is labeled "Diet Coke'' and features snowflakes.

Most of the confusion seems to arise at small stores, where consumers grab single-serve cans from coolers. At supermarkets, packs of 12-ounce white Coke cans are wrapped in red cardboard, and packs of 7.5-ounce cans have a red plastic band announcing "RED CANS TURN WHITE.'' Coke bottles also have kept their red labels.