Coca-Cola will pause its “diversity plan” for outside legal firms after the plan’s author resigned amid public backlash, leading to the question: Is “Woke Coke” on its way out?
In 1985 soft drink giant Coca-Cola made one of the most infamous blunders in the history of corporate America, announcing a change to its tried-and-true formula and launching what it dubbed “New Coke.” Consumers were displeased to say the least, and only 13 percent of consumers said they liked the new formula.
In a somewhat comical display of outrage, consumers, particularly in the South, Coke’s stronghold, began flooding the company with irate phone calls and sending an avalanche of letters. There were even organized campaigns against the new formula, among them the “Old Cola Drinkers of America.”
Company President Donald Keough later said that the company underestimated the “deep and abiding emotional attachments to original Coca-Cola felt by so many people.” One such person wrote a letter complaining, “God and Coca Cola,” had been “the only two things in my life, now you have taken one of those things away from me.”
While the zealous devotion to a soft drink is humorous, it is a perfect example of the power of the consumer. Coca-Cola purists won out and the company quickly changed the formula back to the original. It seems consumers might be flexing their muscles again as Coke appears to be pivoting from another controversial campaign.
The soda titan has of late been at the center of a few controversies regarding “wokeness.” In January, Coca-Cola’s general counsel Bradley Gayton unveiled a plan to cut ties with law firms that did not achieve Coca-Cola’s desired racial quotas. The plan required that at least 30 percent of billed time would be from “diverse attorneys” and half of that time would be from black attorneys.
After noticing that most of the headshots of attorneys from law firms associated with the company were white, Gayton wrote, “The hard truth is that our profession is not treating the issue of diversity and inclusion as a business imperative. We have a crisis on our hands and we need to commit ourselves to specific actions that will accelerate the diversity of the legal profession.”
In February, a leak of the company’s diversity training materials showed that employees were told to “try to be less white.” Among the ways employees could be less white were: “be less oppressive, be less arrogant, be less certain, be less defensive, be less ignorant, be more humble, listen, believe, break with apathy, break with white solidarity.”
In April, the Atlanta-based company voiced its displeasure with Georgia’s new election law. Quincey said, “Let me be crystal clear and unequivocal — this legislation is unacceptable, it is a step backward, and it does not promote principles that we have stood for here in Georgia, around broad access to voting, around voter convenience, about ensuring election integrity, and this is frankly just a step backwards.”
A poll shows that many consumers were angered by the new “Woke Coke.” Rasmussen reported that “52% of Republicans say they are less likely to buy Coca-Cola because of the company’s involvement in the Georgia election law controversy.” Moreover, 37 percent of overall voters polled said they were less likely to purchase Coke products.
In what could be signal of a new “New Coke” episode, the company seemed to soften its stance, recently saying,
“We believe the best way to make progress now is for everyone to come together to listen, respectfully share concerns and collaborate on a path forward. We remain open to productive conversations with advocacy groups and lawmakers who may have differing views. It’s time to find common ground. In the end, we all want the same thing — free and fair elections, the cornerstone of our democracy.”
Recent reports show the company is also hitting the pause button on Gayton’s diversity plan after he abruptly resigned (though he will stay on as a “strategic consultant” for a $670,000 monthly fee). Coke spokesman Scott Leith said new general counsel Monica Howard Douglas will review the plan. “When there is a leadership change, it takes time for the new leader to review the current status of the team, organization, and initiatives. Monica is fully committed to the notions of equity and diversity in the legal profession, and we fully expect she will take the time necessary to thoughtfully review any plans going forward.”
It is highly unlikely that Coke will do a complete about-face on wokeness in the same way it did with the New Coke controversy, particularly considering the handsome consulting fee that Gayton is still receiving. However, this could be evidence that in a free market economy, money talks. The consumer still holds the power because if they don’t like a company or a product, they can choose an alternative.
Will “Woke Coke” go the way of “New Coke?” Probably not, as it seems more likely that it will be quietly replaced with “Diet Woke Coke,” a toned-down version of virtue signaling that will attempt to walk the extremely fine line required to keep both those on the left and those on the right happy.
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