“…it is not the most intellectual of the species that survives; it is not the strongest that survives; but the species that survives is the one that is able best to adapt and adjust to the changing environment in which it finds itself.”

Charles Darwin, unfortunately, did not say this – it is, rather, a quote from business professor Leon Megginson, who was himself paraphrasing Darwin’s work. However, it can hardly be doubted that adaptation is essential for survival, particularly in the business world; there is, in fact, a great deal of published research to this effect.

Coca-Cola has itself evolved in line with changing social mores in order to survive.

It is important to firstly note that Coca-Cola ostensibly owes its massive success, at least in part, to its ultimate penetration strategy – its total physical availability. Coca-Cola’s mission statement was, at one point, to be “within an arm’s reach”.

Recent empirical evidence has supported the efficacy of a penetration strategy. For example, a study of IPA Effectiveness Award winners found that brands who focused on penetration were over twice as likely to win a medal as those who focused on loyalty.

In order to achieve its enormous penetration, Coca-Cola has consistently adapted itself over the years so that it is as available to as many consumers as possible. As this Atlantic article describes, among other adaptations, the brand removed alcohol from the drink during times of temperance, it removed cocaine from the drink once the drug’s harmful effects on society were recognised, and, by bottling the drink, African Americans could buy it they were otherwise banned from segregated drinking fountains.

Just as Coca-Cola removed cocaine in order to adapt, so too might other key ingredients need to be removed for the brand to survive in coming years. For instance, one comprehensive review of research found that sugar can manipulate reward pathways, and induce craving, to the same degree as addictive drugs like cocaine itself. Indeed, legislation trends hint that sugar may be facing the same future as cocaine. Campaigners are calling for a sugar tax in the UK, following in the footsteps of countries like Norway.

So, on the surface, Coca-Cola Life – a version of the drink which uses the sweetener stevia to cut its calorific content – appears to be a smart move. However, it is doomed – for these three reasons:

1. Consumers Are Not Rational

Consumers are generally not rational. As an illustration, the best estimate is that humans process 11,000,000 bits of sensory information a second, but only 40 of these are processed consciously.

Consumers are thus extremely limited in the cognitive resources they have to expend on a purchase decision – they are cognitive misers. In one study, participants were offered a piece of either fruit or cake for a snack; most people chose the fruit. However, after completing a mental arithmetic task, most people chose the cake. The task had tired or distracted the participants’ conscious minds, allowing the impulsive id to take over.

The problem for Coca-Cola Life is that consumers are generally distracted, tired or rushed – in other words, they usually take the cake, not the fruit. In fact, research consistently shows that purchase decisions are about two thirds impulsive, and one third deliberative: for instance, one paper used in-store interviews and receipts to find that 30% of purchases were specifically planned and bought.

In essence, Coke Life is appealing to a conscious, logical and planned consumer goal – and this simply is not representative of the majority of consumer decision-making.

2. It Is Unrecognisable

Since consumers are cognitive misers, they typically spend little time or effort on their purchasing decisions. It has been estimated that a shopper can make a decision in as little as a third of a second. Furthermore, one in-store study found that 90% of shoppers could not describe the packaging of an item they had only just put in the basket, suggesting that packaging tends to receive very little conscious processing in-store.

One upshot is that brands can suffer significantly when the they are difficult to find.

Let’s take Tropicana as an example. At the start of 2009, Tropicana changed the packaging on their orange juice, after a brand refresh exercise; within two months, the brand had to switch back the old packaging, having suffered a 20% decrease in sales. The problem was that the packaging on the shelves was different to that in consumers’ minds, and consumers could not find the brand.

Likewise, Coca-Cola’s strongest distinctive asset is ostensibly its red colour. When shoppers are looking for Coke, in that window of mere milliseconds, they are looking for the colour red; a green can is likely to be ignored.

3. It’s Simply Not Coke

While distinctive assets like Coca-Cola’s red help a brand to be found in-store, they also serve another important function. Just as Pavlov’s dogs became conditioned to associate the ringing of a bell with the taste of dog food, consumers come to associate distinctive assets with the brand they accompany.

Over the course of decades (not to mention billions of dollars of advertising), Coca-Cola’s red colour has, through myriad repeated exposures, become associated with the product – its taste, its smell, its conceptual branding, and so on.

The brand has invested a lot of its resources in associating the brand with happiness – from singing together, to Santa Claus, to huggable vending machines, and everything in-between. In fact, fMRI research has shown that cola presented in Coca-Cola’s classic branding is much more likely to activate the brain’s reward pathways than that without it.

There is also a great deal of research showing that packaging can influence the perceived taste of the product within. In other words, Coca-Cola sold in a green can will simply not taste like Coca-Cola – and this would be true even if the ingredients were exactly the same. So what will consumers perceive Coca-Cola Life as tasting like? Apple? Tea? Mint? Whatever it is, it won’t be the classic cola taste.

So, since Coca-Cola Life is devoid of red, it is also devoid of the expectations of taste, and associations of happiness, that traditionally accompany the brand.

To wit, Coca-Cola Life is doomed to fail because consumers are often too irrational to care about their health, because the green labelling will make it hard for consumers to find the product, and because the green labelling will negatively affect perceptions of taste and quality. It took the New Coke debacle for the brand to learn not to mess with the drink’s recipe; similarly, it may take Coca-Cola Life to learn not to mess with the branding recipe.

In the coming months, it will be interesting to see how Coca-Cola Life performs; initial reports suggest that sales have been “lacklustre”.