Soda Wars: Revenge of the Diet Beverages

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By: Dr. James McFarland, People Scientist

Not so long ago (the early 1990s) and not so far away (well, here on planet earth), an epic battle filled with intrigue, sabotage, and sacrifice took place. Although it was “fought” in plain sight, few understood that the conflict was designed to ensure that both sides would lose in the end. Today, we are here to tell you that story. 

The year was 1992, the era of “Clear Craze” marketing was in full swing, and PepsiCo had just released its newest product, Crystal Pepsi. A soda free of caffeine, preservatives, and color. It was purported to be a “healthier” cola, with all-natural flavoring and 20 fewer calories. All the taste and flavor of Pepsi cola, without any unnecessary or artificial ingredients. Timed perfectly with the cultural popularity of making products more “pure,” Crystal Pepsi was an instant hit in 1992, and in its first year captured 1% of the USA’s total soft drink sales with the expected goal of carving out a steady 2% for years to come. However, this long-term growth never occurred, and Crystal Pepsi’s burgeoning success was abruptly cut short.

Following the initial release of Crystal Pepsi (with much fanfare and early success), PepsiCo’s largest competitor, Coca-Cola, was quick to follow suit and in short order released their own clear cola-flavored soda into the newly forming market. However, unlike Crystal Pepsi, Coca-Cola distanced itself from its clear cola by selling it via its Tab brand and calling it “Tab Clear.” Also, unlike PepsiCo, Coca-Cola executives were secretly hoping their new product would ultimately fail.

Ignoring the “pure” and “natural” framework carefully constructed by PepsiCo for the new market of clear sodas, Coca-Cola actively promoted Tab Clear as a sugar-free diet beverage meant to help with weight loss and was marketed to consumers as a sensible cola-flavored choice. The gamble paid off. Crystal Pepsi’s popularity immediately began to wane as the clear cola market quickly became psychologically associated with Tab Clear, sugar-free, dieting, and weight loss.

Consumers were not interested in another diet soda. That market niche was already saturated with popular products. Despite Crystal Pepsi’s desperate insistence that it was not just another diet soda (Crystal Pepsi in fact had its own diet version), consumer opinion had already been swayed, and sales of Crystal Pepsi plummeted. In late 1993, less than 18 months after its introduction, Crystal Pepsi was discontinued and was followed into retirement by Tab Clear just a few months later. Both products were perceived to be failed forays into a failed market. However, years later the nefarious purpose of Tab Clear was revealed; it was designed to fail…and bring down Crystal Pepsi along with it. 

In Stephen Denny’s book Killing Giants (2011), Coca-Cola’s chief marketing officer revealed to the author they intentionally marketed Tab Clear as a diet beverage in order to tank the entire market of clear colas, specifically in an effort to target the success of Crystal Pepsi. This “kamikaze” approach used the principle of higher-order conditioning to mentally associate a doomed-to-fail product with its stronger competitor. More often, this psychological principle is used to elicit a favorable response to a product or service by associating it with a positively regarded entity (e.g., celebrity endorsements). However, in this case, the public’s response most decidedly went in the opposite direction. Tab Clear’s reputation as a calorie-free diet beverage was too powerful for the new category of clear colas and Crystal Pepsi to withstand, and ultimately it destroyed them all.Whew! That is enough adventure and intrigue for this week. Join us next time for more daring exploits in the not-so-far-away galaxy of consumer psychology. If you have any questions, or just want to learn more about the power of the marketing force, give us a call (833-579-1905) or email us at [email protected].