ATLANTA — Donald Keough, who as president of Coca-Cola led the world’s largest soft-drink maker during one of its most successful eras and one of its worst with the failed introduction of New Coke, has died. He was 88.

He died Tuesday in Atlanta, Chief Executive Officer Muhtar Kent said in a memo to employees that was provided by the company.

As Coca-Cola’s president from 1981 to 1993, Keough and then-Chief Executive Officer Roberto Goizueta were credited with steering the business to a golden age of global growth. During that period, revenue rose to $14 billion from $5.9 billion and the average earnings gain was about 15 percent annually.

The executives also had setbacks, most notably reformulated Coke, which was their response to rival PepsiCo, based in Purchase, New York.


In April 1985, Goizueta announced that Atlanta-based Coca-Cola changed the formula of its flagship soda for the first time in its then 99-year-old history. He called New Coke “smoother, rounder, yet bolder” and “the boldest marketing move in the history of the consumer goods business.”

Consumers didn’t agree. They rejected the drink and flooded the company’s headquarters with phone calls and letters demanding a return to old Coke.

“The Edsel of the 80s,” said Roger Enrico, then-president of Pepsi-Cola USA, comparing New Coke with Ford’s famous design flop of the 1950s. Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, seeing a misstep by a model of U.S. corporate strength, called New Coke “a sign of American capitalist decadence.”

Less than three months later, Keough and Goizueta announced the company was pulling New Coke from store shelves and reintroducing the original formula, rebranded as Coca-Cola Classic. New Coke was renamed Coke II and relegated to the dustbin of corporate history.

Donald Raymond Keough was born on Sept. 4, 1926, in Maurice, Iowa. His father was a farmer and cattleman who lost most of his money in the Great Depression.

Keough enlisted in the U.S. Navy in 1944, and later enrolled at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska, on the G.I. Bill. After college, Keough stayed in Omaha, working at Paxton & Gallagher Co., a wholesaler grocer. Focusing on marketing and advertising, he remained at the company as it grew through mergers. In 1959 it was acquired by C.A. Swanson & Sons, a local maker of frozen foods, including so-called TV dinners. The combined company was renamed Butternut Foods Co., according to the Greater Omaha chamber of Commerce website. It merged with Houston-based Duncan Coffee Co. in 1962, and later became part of Coca-Cola.


“I never changed businesses,” Keough said in “My One Big Break,” a 2004 book of recollections by executives. “I started in 1950, kept my head down, and I felt privileged to work for each of them. I jumped into a little creek, which became a river, which turned into a gulf, which grew into an ocean. All I ever did was swim.”

In 1967 Keough headed marketing at Coca-Cola’s foods division and became the unit’s president four years later.

In 1973, he moved to the company’s Atlanta headquarters, where he served as executive vice president of Coca-Cola USA. Keough was named president of Coca-Cola Co. and a director in 1981, posts he held until retiring in 1993, according to the company’s website. He rejoined the board in 2004.