How to Avoid a “New Coke” Church

–Daniel S. Ferguson

In the early 1980s, Coca-Cola had a problem. They were steadily losing market share to diet colas. That was a problem, but they could live with it. After all, Coke was still the beast of the market.

But then the Pepsi Challenge happened.

This brilliant marketing strategy got millions of people to switch from Coca-Cola to Pepsi in just a few months. Coca-Cola’s market share plummeted from its height of 60% in the 1940s to a fifty-year low of just 24% in 1983, and they seriously started to panic. They even did their own blind taste tests to verify what the Pepsi Challenge was showing, and sure enough, people did prefer Pepsi over Coke.

The difference, they found, was that Pepsi was sweeter. So Coke decided to change its formula to compete with that. Enter New Coke.

The results of the taste tests were strong. The sweeter New Coke overwhelmingly beat original Coke and Pepsi in trial after trial after trial. And so it came to pass that on April 23, 1985, New Coke entered the scene.

Most of us know the rest of the story. Despite initial sales increases, New Coke was a total marketing disaster. Their headquarters quickly received over 40,000 letters disparaging the new product, along with over 1500 irate phone calls per day.

Less than three months later, Coca-Cola finally bowed to public pressure and returned to their original formula, now branded as Coca-Cola classic. It took some time, but eventually everything stabilized, people went back to drinking Coke, and their numbers rose again.

So what happened? Why didn’t the market research work? How did taste tests go wrong?

Two reasons: 1) Coke was a long-established brand with millions of loyal drinkers who had been enjoying it since childhood and who would resist any change to it, and 2) the taste tests lied.

They simply lied, as much as numbers can. In a single taste of something, people will almost always choose the sweeter of two things. A single taste isn’t enough to tell if you actually prefer the product. In later-conducted “whole-can” tests, where consumers take a can of each home and try each whole can separately, Coke beat Pepsi almost as much as Pepsi was beating Coke in single-taste tests.

What the tests showed was that sweetness was preferred on sip number one. But on sips number 2 through the end, a more delicate, slightly less sweet taste was preferred. And that’s what Coke already had.

How does this relate to church?

The past two days, I’ve talked about how you can know a church is good on your first visit. The problem with this is that many churches are wise to it. They know how to put on a “sweet” show for their first-time guests in order to get them to come back the next time. They’ve studied and prepared to give first-time guests an excellent first taste.

But what happens after that first taste? That’s very important. So here’s what to look AFTER your first experience at a church to make sure it isn’t a “New Coke” church. (#trademark #nostealing).

1) Someone remembers you and engages with you on your second visit.

On your first visit, you may have been given something, like a gift or information pamphlet. These things are used as visual cues to let volunteers know that you’re new so that they can greet you exorbitantly well. That’s a great way to do it, and it should be done.

But on your second visit, you no longer have a tattoo on your forehead that reads “I’m New Here.” So see what happens. If you’re greeted by someone who talked to you last week, do they remember you?

It’s not necessarily important that they remember your name or details perfectly. But do they at least make an effort at it. Something as small as, “Hey, remind me of your name again,” is enough to satisfy this.

This shows that the first-time experience isn’t all the church is after. It shows they’re after relationships, nearly all of which involve a name-remembering and reconnecting phase.

2) You’re invited to something specific in the future.

If you’re invited to something like a small group or even just coffee sometime that week, it shows that the church isn’t just a recurring one-time event. It shows they have depth and desire relationships and growth beyond Sunday morning experiences.

It also shows that they’re interested in helping you walk in whatever your next steps are. Especially if you’re invited to a small group. That would show that they don’t just want you as a first-time guest who keeps coming back. They want you to grow and to develop in your relationship with Jesus. That’s a really good sign.

3) Someone asks you for your story.

This may come up a little on your first week, but it’s a really good sign if someone asks you to tell some part of your story to them. When I’m greeting people, my favorite way of doing this is to ask, “What brought you to this church?”

Not just any church, but this church. There’s always a story there, even if the person I ask is a long-time Christian. It’s a great broad question that’s just specific enough and just safe enough to get real answers out of people. And getting a real answer, a real story, shows that I really do care about them.

This kind of thing shows something very important about a church, that stories are more important than numbers.

4) People tell you their stories, too.

This is a mimic of #3, but it’s a good one to note as well. If people are open about their own stories and struggles, it’s a good sign that they’re fully investing in this whole changing-your-life thing called Christianity.

5) Someone mentions serving at the church (as a good thing).

Serving at a church is a crucial part of building relationships at that church, on top of it being a best practice for growing in faith. Watch and see if people recommend serving like if they say, “You know what you’d be really at? The hospitality team!”

This isn’t the same as being asked to volunteer. I’m not talking about people who clearly need a break because they’re shorthanded. I’m talking about people who show joy in serving and know how wonderful it truly can be. They’re not just pushing for volunteers; they’re recommending volunteering because they like it. That’s a really good sign of investment.

6) The Gospel continues to be the center of sermons.

See yesterday’s post about this.

None of those is as “sweet” as a first-time experience, but they’re a lot more satisfying in the long run. They’re great ways to know by the end of a few Sundays if you really want to stick around for the whole can.


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