New Coke, the soft drink that drew a nationwide backlash in 1985, is back. And the credit, or blame, for the return of Coca-Cola’s greatest folly goes to Netflix.
A limited supply of the vintage beverage will be available starting on Thursday as part of a robust promotional campaign related to the coming season of “Stranger Things,” the supernatural thriller set in the 1980s.
Netflix, which has 149 million paid subscribers worldwide, is starting to ramp up its corporate partnerships and merchandising deals. The strategy gives the streaming service a way to market its wares and generate a new revenue stream that doesn’t involve interrupting its shows with commercials. Unlike its competitor Hulu, Netflix is commercial free, although it has included product placement — sometimes paid, sometimes not — on its series and films.
The revival of New Coke comes as part of a large-scale marketing effort of the kind usually associated with summertime blockbusters. Netflix said it had teamed up with about 75 companies, including Baskin-Robbins, Levi’s and H&M Group, to draw attention to “Stranger Things.”
Matt and Ross Duffer, the creators of the show, said the New Coke tie-in came about naturally, given that the coming season, available July 4, takes place in summer 1985. That was when the Coca-Cola Company was fending off the unexpected negative reaction to the sweeter, smoother version of its flagship beverage, a reaction that included boycotts, letter-writing campaigns and thousands of phone calls to its Atlanta headquarters.
“New Coke was always going to play a role this season,” the Duffer Brothers, as they are listed in the credits, said in a joint email interview. “It was one of the first ideas in our Season 3 brainstorm. It was the summer of ’85, and when you talk about pop culture moments, New Coke was a really big deal. It would have been more bizarre to not include it.”
The Duffers, 35-year-old twins, said Netflix first proposed the New Coke tie-in, but they may have thought it up themselves, however inadvertently. Barry Smyth, Netflix’s head of partnership marketing, said the idea first came up during a meeting in 2017 between the show’s creators and Netflix executives.
“We asked the question, ‘What would really blow it out of the water for this campaign?’” Mr. Smyth recalled. “They jokingly said, ‘Bring back New Coke.’ They thought it was a joke. We took it as a brief.”
Although Coca-Cola executives have acknowledged that New Coke was a debacle, they said yes to the proposal. The company had to dig up the recipe from its archives and said it would make 500,000 cans of New Coke available on its website and in some vending machines.
The association with an oddity of ’80s consumer culture is on-brand for a show known for stirring nostalgia among viewers who grew up in the Reagan years. Even its visual language owes a debt to Steven Spielberg’s “E. T. the Extra-Terrestrial” and other ’80s films.
The story and mood of the series also bears the influence of Stephen King — who has defended the practice of including brand names in his fiction — and the show’s title sequence has a look inspired by the King paperbacks that were all but inescapable during the decade.
Many props on “Stranger Things” recall the era, too. One of its young protagonists carries a Trapper Keeper notebook, a onetime status symbol of school hallways; another character keeps a He-Man action figure, a popular ’80s toy, in his room. The throwback mood has been heightened by the soundtrack’s inclusions of Toto’s “Africa” and the Clash’s “Should I Stay or Should I Go.”
In another deal meant to play up the show’s retro appeal, H&M will offer a line of ’80s-style T-shirts, swimsuits, visors and flip-flops. Some are branded with the “Stranger Things” logo; others replicate clothing worn by the show’s characters. The collection will be accompanied by an ad campaign featuring Dacre Montgomery, who plays the villainous Billy Hargrove on the show.
The Baskin-Robbins tie-in is likely to introduce new flavors that, among other things, reference Scoops Ahoy, the ice cream parlor featured on the show. “I’ve been at Baskin for 15 years, and this is by far the biggest partnership we’ve ever done,” said Dave Nagel, the company’s senior director for consumer engagement.
The return of New Coke is perhaps the most surprising and nostalgia-inducing element of the campaign. The almost forgotten artifact belonged to a predigital time of fewer entertainment options, with network TV still dominant, and fewer soda varieties, too.
Nowadays Coca-Cola has many spinoffs, including obscurities like Coca-Cola Zero Sugar Vanilla and Diet Coke Blueberry Acai. In 1985, there was Cherry Coke, introduced that year to a positive reaction, and Diet Coke. And from late April into July, New Coke was the only drink to go under the name Coca-Cola or Coke. (The official name was Coca-Cola or Coke, and the word “new” was featured on cans.)
The backlash to the sweeter concoction was as intense as it was unexpected. “It’s a taste tragedy,” a Florida man named Robert Hester told The New York Times, summing up the mood of cola purists of the day. In Beverly Hills, Calif., a wine shop sold the former version of Coca-Cola at triple the usual price.
With an about-face announcement on July 11, the company brought back the original under the name Coca-Cola Classic, and the two types existed side by side for the remainder of the decade. After taking on the name Coke II, the reformulated drink lasted until 2002, when it was quietly pulled from shelves. The original formula had won out, but the “Classic” tag didn’t fall away from cans and bottles until 2009.
The Duffers featured brand-name products in the first two seasons of “Stranger Things,” with Kellogg’s Eggo waffles and Kentucky Fried Chicken having prominent roles. Netflix said the two companies did not pay anything to appear on the program.
For the show’s creators, the association with brand-name products helps give “Stranger Things” the feel of their favorite ’80s movies.
“When we were kids, we were obsessed with those self-lacing Nikes in ‘Back to the Future Part II,’ and, of course, we loved that Elliott baited E. T. with Reese’s Pieces!” the Duffers said. “When we were kids, that simply made Elliott more relatable, more ordinary, more like us.”
With Coca-Cola and Netflix poised to benefit from the deal they have struck, representatives of both companies said no money was changing hands. Netflix added that many of its other brand partnerships, including with Baskin-Robbins, would not generate revenue, although the streaming service will get a cut of “Stranger Things”-branded clothing and merchandise.
Any money the company brings in from the arrangements isn’t as important as “fueling the fandom,” said Christie Fleischer, Netflix’s vice president for consumer products.
“I do believe the marketing value and the fan engagement will far outweigh what the revenue will look like,” she added.
Relationships with outside companies seem likely to become a trend for Netflix. The producer Shonda Rhimes, who has a nine-figure, multiyear contract with Netflix, expressed an interest in “product integration” during an interview with The New York Times last year.
The Duffers said none of the marketing deals meant to hype their show would add to their bank accounts. “We’re not getting a revenue cut from any of this,” they said. “The hope is that it just gets the show more exposure. There are countries and regions where we’re still trying to break though, and we think this new marketing strategy will make a big difference.”
The arrangement did lead to a paid side gig: The Duffers directed a Coke commercial to be shown in movie theaters starting this weekend. And they pledged that their show would stay true to the brand, saying, “We did tell our production designer to make sure we never saw any Pepsi!”