The end is near for a white can that has many Coke drinkers seeing red.
Coca-Cola Co. is switching back to its time-honored red 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.
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. Others felt that regular Coke tasted different in the white cans. Still others argued that messing with red bordered on sacrilege.
James Ali, who owns Wall Street Deli in an Atlanta food court, said about half a dozen customers have returned opened white cans in recent days after realizing, too late, that they weren't drinking Diet Coke. He lets them take unopened diet cans without charging them again.
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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, says Scott Williamson, a spokesman for the beverage company. Coke's marketing executives wanted a "disruptive" campaign to get consumers' attention, he says.
The can-color debate pales next to the uproar of 1985, 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 says 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,'' says Mr. Williamson.
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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, added Mr. Williamson.
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. 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 spokesman said 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. "PEOPLE! Don't be a victim,'' wrote one consumer on Twitter, warning that mixing up Coke and Diet Coke is "a SHOCK to the palate!''
Another person accused Coke of "trickery,'' and still another called the white cans "blasphemy,'' among hundreds of tweets. 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. One couple posted a video on YouTube in which the wife claims to be able to recognize whether Coke is in a white or red can during a blindfolded taste test. "This is the funky one!'' the wife shouts after drinking out of a white can.
Coke says 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.
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Mel Cyr, a 17-year-old Coke drinker from Sheboygan Falls, Wis., said she and other teenagers attending this week's National 4-H Congress in Atlanta scratched their heads after seeing the white cans. "You can't change something that's classic,'' said Ms. Cyr.
4-H delegates from Wisconsin said their chaperone was mistakenly served a regular Coke on the flight to Atlanta from Milwaukee after requesting Diet Coke. "The flight attendants were really frustrated'' and apologized for the mix-up, said Sara Harn, 17, of Brooklyn, Wis.
But Ed Rice, the 81-year-old chief executive of Ozarks Coca-Cola/Dr Pepper Bottling Company, a longtime Coke distributor in Springfield, Mo., thinks the white can was innovative and engaged consumers. He downplayed confusion between the cans.
"If you put the cans side by side and blink, you might have to take a second look,'' said Mr. Rice, who loaded his first Coke truck in 1945. "But I think there's a distinct difference."
Write to Mike Esterl at email@example.com