Ex-Coke executive Keough dies at 88
Donald Keough, who helped steer Coca-Cola through the "cola wars" of the 1980s and played a key role in the introduction of New Coke, died today in Atlanta, according to the company. He was 88.
Keough served as the company's president and chief operating officer from 1981 to 1993. He is credited with expanding Coca-Cola into a more global presence and remained a widely respected figure within the company even after his retirement.
During his tenure, however, Coca-Cola also introduced New Coke as it was fighting off efforts by PepsiCo to take market share. The new formula, which was sweeter and less acidic than the original version, was a disaster and prompted protests by fans and an onslaught of negative publicity.
A song called Coke Was It, mocking the company's Coke Is It slogan, even became popular on radio stations, according to the book Secret Formula by Frederick Allen. Coca-Cola dumped New Coke soon after, bringing back the old formula as Coca-Cola Classic.
During a press conference to announce the return of regular Coke, Roberto Goizueta, Coke's chief executive at the time, told the audience that "We have heard you," according to Secret Formula.
Keough then spoke, and managed to put the company's error in a positive light by noting that the response showed the "passion" people have for Coca-Cola.
"Some critics will say Coca-Cola made a marketing mistake. Some cynics will say that we planned the whole thing. The truth is we are not that dumb and not that smart," Keough said.
In a memo posted online today, Coca-Cola chief executive Muhtar Kent said Keough "brought a steady hand to the wheel in challenging times, unmatched operating skill that strengthened and expanded the Coca-Cola system and an expansive vision that helped make Coca-Cola a truly international brand."
After his retirement in 1993, Keough remained an adviser to the company. He served on the board from 2004 to 2013.