For CEOs of the pre-www world, July 10, 1985 was a terrifying example of how trying to fly too close to the sun could leave even the mightiest corporate wings up in smoke. It's a day that, up until April 2006 - when an obscure young search engine called Yahoo! debuted on the NASDAQ and commanded with it a $1 billion plus valuation - few forgot. But like all history, it's one that might serve the CEOs of today's web giants well if they revisited it.
On April 23, 1985, Coca-Cola, beaten for the decade in sales by rival Pepsi, decided to meddle with the formula of the world's then second-favourite drink and launch a sweeter, more hip-tasting replacement called New Coke. In every blind taste test, where consumers were asked for their favourite opinion without knowing the brands they were tasting, New Coke had won over both Pepsi and the traditional Coca-Cola formula. Coca-Cola had never been more confident.
What ensued was a three-month rebellion to bring back the old soda, of the likes only usually seen in political rallies. Demonstrations, marches, and campaigns took place all over America; a cry from the consumer heart against corporate strategy. Finally, on July 10, Coca-Cola relented. Asked by critics whether this had been a deliberate ploy to regenerate interest in Coke, Donald Keough, then chief operating officer, replied, "We're not that smart, and we're not that dumb."
So now we turn to Google. "Smart, iconclastic, arrogant, ambitious and rich," writes Richard Waters in this weekend's Financial Times. "With no allegiances to the powers that be and an apparent disregard for the enemies it makes along the way, Google has struck fear into the established media industry."
By pondering the fate of Coca-Cola, there are two questions that might occur to CEOs of new media enterprises as they go about their zealous mission changing the world: if they got rid of their traditional product tomorrow, are people likely to stage a revolution over it? And, perhaps more poignantly, if they get rid of old media institutuions tomorrow, how will people react?