If you’re a loyal Coke drinker, you’re likely feeling a little confused these days.

Recently, when you scanned the soda aisle at the grocery store looking for your familiar red and white can, you may have wondered if you’d accidentally landed in the wrong section. But, wait… all the other soda is here. So where’s the Coke? They can’t be out of Coke.

Then, after another scan and a squint: “Wait, is THAT what I’m looking for?!”

White Coke Can, Holiday 2011

And you’re not alone: many loyal fans have been greeting the new white Coke can pictured above in a similar way. The new design, complete with silver polar bears, was a cause marketing effort recently introduced by Coca-Cola Company, in partnership with the World Wildlife Fund.

In a statement to their confused fan base, Coke explained that the campaign was launched to highlight the threat global warming poses to the Arctic habitat of the polar bear. They designed the white can to be bold and attention-grabbing –and most importantly, to “reinforce” the campaign theme.

However, most customers didn’t buy it — literally.

Some buyers wondered if the cans actually contained the Coke they knew and loved, and as a result, were reluctant to put them in their grocery baskets. Another — likely foreseeable — complaint arose from the similarity of the polar bear design and the Diet Coke can: many consumers purchased the non-diet formula in the polar bear can, and didn’t realize they were getting more than one calorie until they took a swig.

And with the most subjective response of them all — though potentially the most damaging — some longtime Coke drinkers said the new can had an impact on the taste.

I think it’s a beautiful design, actually – but does the aesthetic value of the design really have anything to do with the buzz? Personally, I don’t think so. It’s more of a failure of expectation, and a failure to respect their own brand equity.

Coke’s customers have developed a solid brand loyalty over the years to the company’s iconic visual system — a system that both drives and relies on their emotional attachments to a certain look and feel.

A red can = Classic Coca Cola.

A silver and white can = Diet Coke.

They also sell Coke Zero in distinctive black cans that were introduced in 2005 — but the design clearly signaled “new product!” when they launched the formula.

The system is internationally recognizable, and has sustained value over time, even through the New Coke debacle and various successful and unsuccessful product extensions. That’s why the new holiday design was not simply a swapping of brand colors, but a risky muddling of a well-established system… and in the end, it failed to engage their loyal customers.

Another example: imagine waking up one day to discover that the colors on the ubiquitous McDonald’s logo had switched. Now the arches are red, and name is yellow. The shock would be instant… and understandable. Visual systems give us something to connect to, both consciously and subconsciously. While adding a little dissonance to a design can be a positive kind of disruption, flipping the whole system on its ear is a dangerous decision for a major brand to make.

In response to the wave of negative reactions, Coke announced a recall of the white cans from the shelves, and introduced a seasonal red can of a similar design “to maintain the excitement” of the campaign.

I think that’s a smart move; not only because customers will find what they’re looking for in the soda aisle more easily, but because Coke decided to reward brand allegiance, and make a truly customer-responsive change. Hopefully the polar bears will benefit, too!