Donald Keough, who steered Coca-Cola through the “cola wars” of the 1980s, died Tuesday in Atlanta, the company said. He was 88.
Keough served as the company’s president and chief operating officer from 1981 to 1993. He is credited with building Coca-Cola into a more global company.
He has also been a minority owner of the Carolina Panthers.
“Don Keough was an extraordinary man and a close friend,” Panthers majority owner Jerry Richardson said in a statement. “We worked together on many projects and I never failed to learn from him. He was always true to his word and will be missed. Don was also a great friend of the Panthers and our sympathies go out to the Keough family.”
During his tenure, Coca-Cola introduced “New Coke” as it was fighting off efforts by PepsiCo to take market share. Coke fans protested. A song called “Coke was It,” mocking the company’s “Coke Is It” slogan, was popular on radio stations, according to the book “Secret Formula” by Frederick Allen.
Coca-Cola dumped New Coke, bringing back the old formula as “Coca-Cola Classic.”
During a press conference at the time, Keough focused on the upside of the company’s error, 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, according to “Secret Formula.”
In a memo posted online Thursday, Coca-Cola CEO 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. Staff writer Rick Rothacker contributed.