(“Keeping TaB: A Diet Soft Drink Shelf Life,” Journal of American & Comparative Cultures, March 2004– by George Plasketes)
“If there’s a heritage to a brand and the brand has withstood the test of time maybe there’s a story to tell.”
Jeffrey Himmel, CEO, Himmel Group, New York
Since its formulation in 1963, the Coca-Cola Company’s offspring, Tab, has transcended standard diet soft drink status to become a quirky yet enduring cultural icon that invites contradiction, curiosity, and anachronistic quips. Taste tests alone yield divergent responses along the soft drink spectrum. Self-professed Tabaholics pronounce the beverage an “elixir of the gods,” likening a sip to a “crisp Chardonnay” (McKay B1). More cautious, less complimentary cola connoisseurs characterize Tab’s taste as “sassy” (Giges, “Why Coke” 2), “mysterious” (Bryant), or “a good tart coke” (Allen 320), while dissenters dismiss Tab with distasteful descriptions such as “diety,””peppery,””astringent,” and “metallic” (McKay B1). Likewise, Tab’s presence at the grocery check-out lanes invites contrasting glances from bar-code scanning clerks, often defined along generational lines, the older response being, “I didn’t know they still made that stuff,” while the standard younger remark is, “Oh, is this a new drink?” 1
Tab’s liquid life is one of peculiar perseverance. The Tabloid is a progression of points from pioneer and possibility to potential poison, paradox, and parody. The beverage’s cultural context extends beyond calorie consciousness to contain corporate conflict within Coca-Cola, cancer concerns, cola cannibalization, the clear movement, and kitschy, comedic characterizations in film and television narratives. In its four decades, TaB has survived the cyclamate and saccharine scare of the 1970s, the arrival of Diet Coke in the 1980s and the cola wars that followed, and the saturation of sport drinks and bottled water in the 1990s. In today’s sea of beverages, overflowing with more than nine hundred brands of bottled water and cola competitors in a new-millennium mode adding lemon twists, berry blue fusions, and cherry and vanilla retro revivals, TaB still manages a minuscule market share and a clinging subcultural following.
TaBloid: A Quirky Low-Calorie Chronicle
The “dawn of a new era” manifesto that permeated American culture during the 1960s had widespread ripples that reached even the soft drink industry. The decade marked a significant turning point in the rivalry between its two leaders, Coca-Cola and Pepsi, as they encountered a changing consumer composition and climate. A surge of young consumers from the postwar baby boom unveiled a thirst for soft drink flavors other than cola. In addition, beverage buyers became increasingly interested in convenience packaging and distribution through vending machines and nonreturnable bottles.
The modernized mentality of the marketplace meant image alteration for the cola companies. Coca-Cola’s identity was considered old fashioned and part of the World Wars I and II generations, while Pepsi was the drink of their children. Coke responded paradoxically with reluctance and necessary aggression. The company broke its seventy-five-year tradition by introducing a noncola beverage, Sprite, and a new line of popular flavors under the brand name Fanta. It also began experimentation with canned drinks. Pepsi countered by producing its own lemon-lime drink, Teem, and a line of flavors called Patio.
Another significant factor emerging within the collective cultural, consumer, and cola consciousness was calorie counting. During the 1950s, women in particular had become increasingly calorie conscious. The preoccupation with appearance escalated during the early 1960s. Among the contributing factors was the high-profile presence of First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, whose slim elegance provided an image many sought to emulate. Market surveys in the early 1960s indicated that twenty-eight percent of the population in America were watching their weight. “The bulging waistline and middle age spread has taken on proportions of a national calamity,” wrote one commentator characterizing the cultural (out of) condition (Pendergrast 283).
The dramatic trend translated into widespread interest in low- or no-calorie soft drinks. In 1958, diet drinks accounted for less than one percent of the sales in the nation’s $3 billion soft drink industry. In 1961, it was the lesser-known Royal Crown Cola that got the jump on this new segment of the traditional cola market by taking its Diet-Rite Cola out of the medicine section and promoting it nationally as a diet soft drink.
The impact triggered responses from the major cola competitors. In May 1962, Coca-Cola was in the midst of a leadership transition as J. Paul Austin became the company’s tenth president. Austin’s top priority became “Project Alpha,” a research campaign initiated by retiring CEO Lee Talley aimed at developing a diet soft drink. Coca-Cola’s marketing division tinkered with its traditional formula in an attempt to concoct a saccharine- and cyclamate-flavored cola that would have the proper “mouth feel” and would not leave a “kerosene” aftertaste. Proper packaging and a catchy name were also objectives. Tom Law, head of the subsidiary Fanta Beverage Company that would sell the product, lobbied for the new drink to be called “Diet Coke.” Austin, though widely regarded as a progressive manager, viewed the suggestion as nothing short of heresy. A statement from a representative from Coca-Cola’s ad agency, McCann-Erickson, echoed Austin’s view and punctuated the unimaginable: “If God had wanted Coca-Cola to have saccharine, he would have made it that way in the first place” (Pendergrast 284).
The name game proceeded via playful word association and suggestions from company, advertising, and marketing staffers. When those efforts yielded few satisfactory and catchy solutions, Austin resorted to a modernized mode. He enlisted an IBM mainframe computer to generate more than 25,000 random three- and four-letter words (and sift through words that might be offensive in other languages). The possibilities ranged from “abzu,””achu,” and “ack” to “zap,””zorg,” and “zuff.” After narrowing the options to about six hundred, then to a final field of twenty-five, which were reviewed by public panels and market testers, the massive task finally produced a preference: “TaB.” Resisters smirked, saying that “TaB” could be read as an acronym for “totally artificial beverage.” Yet the name satisfied numerous corporate, commodity, and consumer criteria: “TaB” was short and distinctive, it was likely to enhance product recognition and recall, it had an identity independent of Coke, and it suggested “keeping tab on weight.”
In 1963, Coca-Cola introduced TaB in magazine ads that asked, “How can just one calorie taste so good?” The product was formally unveiled at a press conference in the Time-Life Building in New York
Curiously, Coca-Cola was hardly a proud parent company. The corporate tone was ambiguous and apologetic, making TaB’s baptism more a bastardization than a blessed beverage event. Internal identity and legal issues lingered. Coca-Cola regretfully explained to bottlers that it had no desire to “injure its existing Coca-Cola bottle business,” but it was forced to offer a diet drink to prevent competitors from appropriating “this important segment of the audience by default” (Pendergrast 284). Bottlers resisted “allied brands” such as TaB, arguing that its inclusion in the Coca-Cola contract would only erode bottling company profits. Uncertainties surrounding TaB’s ingredients further contributed to its “illegitimate” image. Because TaB contained no caffeine or kola extract, producers wondered if its new beverage could literally and legally be labeled a “cola drink.”
Due in large part to Coca-Cola’s ambivalence toward its new soft drink, TaB failed to command a large part of the diet market, which comprised over one-tenth of total US soft drink consumption. By 1964, TaB held only a ten percent share of the weight watcher market. That number dropped further when Diet Pepsi debuted the same year. Further competition came from within, including fruit and juice drinks such as Hi-C and Minute Maid. In February 1967, Coca-Cola introduced Fresca, a carbonated grapefruit-lemon diet drink that became an overnight sensation, surprising even Coca-Cola. Ads for the diet drink emphasized cool refreshment even more than low calories. The soft drink saturation in the market continued as Pepsi answered with Teem and Mountain Dew, not to mention a snack food merger with Frito-Lay.
The 1970s: The Cyclamate and Saccharine Scare
“Use of this product may be hazardous to your health. This product contains saccharine which has been determined to cause cancer in laboratory animals.”
Warning label printed on Tab containers
As the 1970s approached, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) revealed alarming results of tests on cyclamates, the sweetener used in most diet soft drinks. The experiments, funded in large part by the sugar industry, showed that laboratory rats on a cyclamate diet developed malignant bladder tumors. The FDA had no choice but to remove the chemical from its “Generally Recognized As Safe” list and to ban it under the 1958 Delaney Amendment.
The research results coincided with a Coca-Cola image makeover. The company had inaugurated its “Real Thing” and “Enjoy Coca-Cola” campaigns, and introduced the ribbon logo reflecting the company’s bottle contour. Coca-Cola strongly suggested that the studies were misleading, arguing that rats ingested fifty times the amount of cyclamates a human was likely to absorb. Company officials pointed out that an adult would have to drink 550 Frescas or TaBs a day for the equivalent dosage. “You’d drown before you’d get cancer,” said marketing executive Fred Dickson, who had overseen Tab’s formulation (Pendergrast 297). Widespread, often sensational media coverage created consumer anxieties that reached panic proportions. The virtually unheard-of cyclamates had suddenly become the equivalent of poison. Coca-Cola had no choice but to pull TaB and Fresca from the shelves.
Coca-Cola immediately began to explore alternative sweetener solutions. Sugar was blended with TaB’s saccharine, while Fresca was converted completely to saccharine. In the reformulation process, the diet drinks became “low calorie” instead of “no calorie.” Trying to mask the new added calories in the new versions, Coca-Cola obtained FDA approval to advertise TaB as “six calories per fluid ounce” rather than revealing the total number per drink, as was common.
“Only 72 calories” was not likely to attract calorie-conscious cola consumers. Because Coca-Cola’s diet drinks accounted for only ten percent of its sales at the time, the cyclamate ban did not hurt the company significantly. Rival Royal Crown, whose Diet-Rite continued to dominate the dieting demographic, was the most affected of the cola companies (Pendergrast 297). TaB’s future became even more jeopardized in the late 1970s when the FDA ruled that saccharine, like cyclamates, caused cancer in lab rats and must therefore be prohibited under the Delaney Amendment. Congress, responding to heavy lobbying from the diet industry, voted a moratorium on the saccharine ban. That restriction expired in May 1978, affecting all-saccharine drinks such as TaB.
Artificial sweeteners were not the only concern to soft drink manufacturers at the time. Demographers forecast a gloomy and graying future for the soft drink industry, citing the end of the baby boom, domestic market saturation, and price wars. In addition, colas, which made up sixty percent of the market consumption, were challenged by a wave of new beverages aimed at more specific audiences. This segmentation within the soft drink industry gained its initial momentum during the 1960s. By the end of the 1970s, soft drinks represented a well-researched, well-financed strategic struggle.
Pepsi was setting the pace, while Coca-Cola appeared fragmented and meandering. Though Coca-Cola remained a highly profitable company, Pepsi’s marketing maneuvers resulted in a significant surge in its share of soft drink consumers. The “Take the Pepsi Challenge” campaign showed die-hard Coke consumers astonished to discover that they preferred Pepsi in a blind taste test. Mountain Dew, which had been limited to a regional phenomenon as a “hillbilly drink,” became national when Pepsi shifted the citrus drink’s image in ads from “Yahoo! Mountain Dew” to “Hello Sunshine, Hello Mountain Dew.” Coca-Cola’s requisite response was to introduce its own citrus beverage, Mello Yello. In addition, Pepsi beat Coca-Cola to the punch in packaging as it originated the one-and-a-half and two-liter take home plastic bottles. By the late 1970s, Pepsi had overtaken Coke in supermarket sales. The only that place Coca-Cola maintained an edge was in vending machine revenues. In 1978, Coca-Cola’s market share fell from 26.6 to 26.3, while Pepsi’s rose from 17.2 to 17.6.
The Chosen One: Diet Coke
By 1980, TaB’s tiny tide turned tenuous. Internally, TaB lost one of its staunchest supporters when Paul Austin was replaced by Roberto Goizueta as Coca-Cola’s chairman and chief executive. Austin’s last important act in office was to cancel ongoing diet cola formula experimentation, which began in the mid-1970s as the cyclamate/saccharine situation lingered. In contrast to his TaB preservationist predecessor, Goizueta was committed to developing a new diet soft drink that would replace TaB. The company’s casual, momentarily canceled Diet Coke quest, which began as “Project Triangle,” evolved with urgency into Goizueta’s pet “Project Harvard.” A launch date was scheduled for June 1, 1982, during the key summer selling season.
Though TaB may not have met its parental company’s soaring sales standards, it rose above corporate indifference and circumstances to be a solid, sustaining diet soft drink since its 1963 debut. From its inception, TaB suffered a serious identity crisis namely, its name that represented not a mere marketing mistake but potentially an inherent fatal flaw. When TaB was created, legal consequences, superstitions, tradition, and sheer stubbornness contributed to Coca-Cola’s refusal to christen its new diet drink “Diet Coke” or “Diet Coca-Cola” before the name “TaB” was selected. Lending the hallowed name was viewed as heresy within Coca-Cola’s corporate culture, which revered its primary product Coke as a religious artifact. Those officials who suggested such a sacred designation for the drink were castigated. As a result, TaB was simply TaB. Although it may have been an effective play on words for weight watchers, TaB had no birthmark bearing the most powerful trademark in the world. Branded, but without a brand, TaB was Coca-Cola’s bastard beverage.
From a legal standpoint, Coca-Cola was concerned about potential lawsuits from bottlers if it applied the “Coke” name on any product except the original soft drink. Coke’s name on an allied product such as TaB or Fresca violated exclusivity and pricing provisions in their contracts. Goizueta scoffed, arguing that the lingering legal suspicions were narrow, overly cautious, and largely rooted in office politics and power plays. The Coca-Cola president confidently asserted that once the proposed Diet Coke product got into the marketplace and proved profitable, bottlers would be more interested in libation than litigation. Goizueta’s convictions were in part derived from his personal supervision of the laboratory development of the new product. The former chemical engineer was convinced that the innovative flavoring of the new soft drink would make Diet Coke’s taste superior to TaB and any other diet drink in the market (Greising 104).
Most in Coca-Cola’s corporate ranks shared Goizueta’s view on their pet project; any product bearing the hallowed “Coke” name would automatically have an indelible impact on many levels. They had high hopes that a new diet soft drink would energize business, alter the company’s sedentary state and conservative image, and revitalize the bottlers. Further, Diet Coke would be a profitable venture because a saccharine-sweetened drink would not cost as much to produce. Demographic indicators were also encouraging. Counter to doomsayer reports, aging baby boomers were not drinking fewer cola drinks but were converting to diet drinks as part of the era’s emerging fitness craze.
Field taste tests reinforced the presumptions regarding the power of the Coke trademark. When asked to test plainly marked samples of TaB and Diet Pepsi, consumers preferred Tab narrowly, fifty-two to forty-eight percent. When the same consumers were given TaB in a glass labeled “Diet Coke,” their enthusiasm jumped. Consumers favored the faux Diet Coke over the correctly labeled TaB and Diet Pepsi by a twelve percent margin (Allen 393; Greising 104).
Despite the optimism and expectations, there were pockets of resistance within Coca-Cola’s ranks. TaB loyalists believed a new diet drink would cannibalize its proven product. Many feared that a Diet Coke launch could result in TaB and Diet Coke splitting the low-cal market between them, opening the way for Pepsi to overtake TaB and become the top diet drink. Another product with the Coke name would likely dilute the brand, confuse consumers, and contribute to already strained relations with bottling companies.
Goizueta insisted that market demand exceeded the risks. Diet Coke’s final approval rested with the legendary Robert Woodruff, whose family transformed Coca-Cola from a refreshment into a cultural phenomenon. Goizueta assumed that Woodruff and Coca-Cola’s board members’ collective octogenarian instincts would be to defend the cherished Coke trademark. The shrewd Goizueta used TaB as a persuasive pawn to plead Diet Coke’s case. After citing the obvious the decline in sugar colas and the increased demand for diet soft drinks Goizueta masterfully used TaB and the trademark issue to his advantage. Goizueta claimed that TaB was growing so fast that it might eclipse the company’s flagship drink. “Mr. Woodruff, slowly but surely your company is becoming the TaB company,” cautioned the manipulative Goizueta (Greising 105). “We might have to rename this company the Tab company if we don’t do something” (Pendergrast 341).
Goizueta’s warnings were exaggerated. TaB was hardly the juggernaut Goizueta suggested; its market share had not grown since Diet Pepsi was introduced in 1964. The trusting Woodruff did not follow the Nielsen market research data as closely as he once did and accepted Goizueta’s reasoning. Diet Coke was close to realization. Advance buzz about Coca-Cola’s new diet soft drink was so pervasive that by the time it officially arrived in New York in August 1982, Diet Coke already had widespread name recognition before its $100 million advertising campaign commenced.
With careful development and extensive product and market research, Diet Coke was cleverly positioned as the drink for the 1980s lifestyle. In contrast to TaB’s “perfumy and lacy imagery” that appealed exclusively to women (Pendergrast 349), Diet Coke’s themes proclaiming “you’re gonna drink it just for the taste of it” had a broader demographic appeal. Men, increasingly conscious of their health, weight, and appearance, already bought 30 percent of the diet beverages. Other targets were the newly named “yuppies”young urban professionals who did aerobics and worked out on Nautilus machines. Yet research indicated what had been assumed from the start: that the recognizable, magical brand name “Coke” attracted many new consumers to the new diet drink. By the end of 1983, Diet Coke was the best selling diet drink in the United States. The following year, it rose to number three among the top four drinks in the entire soft drink market, topping even Philip Morris’s popular “un cola,” 7-Up.
Cannibalized and Orphaned: Diet Coke’s Aftertaste
The only aftertaste in the wake of Diet Coke’s instantaneous success could be found in Coca-Cola’s unassuming, original diet drink in the hot pink can. Although TaB had been the nation’s number four soft drink behind Coke, Pepsi, and 7-Up, the realities of the market began to catch up with TaB. Bottlers were willing to put only one diet drink on their canning lines and carry only one on their trucks. Retailers were also wary of devoting too much shelf space to two Coca-Cola products in the diet category. Coca-Cola, which had invested $100 million in Diet Coke’s ad campaign, spent half as much supporting TaB. The advertising budget for TaB was designed to remain competitive with Diet Pepsi. Research did not forecast TaB’s demise. Surveys that suggested TaB would not be cannibalized by Diet Coke happened to fit the outcome Goizueta needed to help sway Woodruff and Coca-Cola’s board. However, those results were clearly preordained because they failed to identify the death knell that Diet Coke inevitably sounded for TaB.
TaB was not totally abandoned, but with the arrival of Diet Coke, TaB’s status shifted from bastard beverage to clinging orphan, a victim of cola cannibalization. Coca-Cola masked its indifference by “repositioning” TaB, primarily through reformulations that included a caffeine- free version in 1983, the addition of calcium, and an aspartame-saccharine mix. Taste increasingly became a significant issue in the low-calorie segment of the audience. As diet drinks became more mainstreamed, soft drink manufacturers began introducing diet versions that were formulated to taste nearly identical to their sweeter counterparts.
TaB taste experiments became an internal issue within Coca-Cola. Many believed that Goizueta was unwilling to pick up the tab for TaB; instead, he chose to pick on TaB. According to Sergio Zyman, Coca-Cola’s senior vice president of marketing, there was a longstanding saying in Coca-Cola’s Atlanta headquarters: “Don’t mess up my TaB.” The reformulation was a response to tests that indicated that a large segment strongly disliked TaB’s taste. But because the brand performed so well for so long and key decision makers in Coca-Cola’s hierarchy were TaB fanatics, there was considerable resistance to extensive reformulation. Despite its fall from the number one diet drink spot, TaB remained a million-dollar seller for Coca-Cola. Zyman conceded that in its twenty-one-year history, TaB may have “turned off more people than it turned on. A lot of people took a sip, made a face and said ‘Yuk.’ They never tried it again. It was a brand that polarized people very much” (Giges, “Why Coke” 2).
Extensive research told management that it had little to lose. Taste tests revealed a preference for TaB containing NutraSweet, G. D. Searle & Company’s brand of aspartame. The aspartame, when blended with saccharine, allowed TaB to retain its “crispness.” While maintaining its familiar association with dieting, Coca-Cola’s minimal marketing efforts aimed at expanding TaB’s demographic beyond the high percentage (seventy percent) of college-educated females with above average incomes who watch their weight (Chadwick). Commercials featured more men and children than previous campaigns, as well as upscale brand images that were not exclusively “diet.” The shifting emphasis was reflected in the straightforward discourse of its “Let’s taste TaB” ad campaign: “You’ll drink Tab now because you want to, not because you have to.” Months later, Coca-Cola further enhanced TaB’s image with a new advertising theme: “TaB’s got sass.” The campaign and subsequent market results rekindled a measure of cautious optimism among company officials as the rate of decline in TaB volume was cut fifty percent in 1984 (Giges, “TaB Turning” 57).
Despite some encouraging signs, the inescapable Diet Coke cannibalization took its toll. In Boston, TaB’s market share slipped from 7 percent in the early 1980s to 1.5 percent by the end of the decade (Chadwick). Many bottlers discontinued TaB in 16-ounce and 1-liter bottles. In most markets, TaB’s availability became limited exclusively to supermarkets. Sparse advertising support for TaB further diminished in the midst of the “the Cola Wars”the colossal cola competition between its parent and Pepsi that dominated the soft drink industry and marketplace’s cola consciousness during much of the 1980s. The marketing focus for TaB became even more narrow, targeting suburbs of cities where the drink performed the best Boston, Atlanta, Memphis, Minneapolis, and Seattle and the Northeast, a region that consumes less cola than any other in the United States.
TaB survived Diet Coke and the 1980s, but barely. During the decade, TaB faded into the soft drink background, descending from its position as the nation’s number four soft drink to a less-than-one-percent share of a $48 billion industry. Although many marketers conveniently dismissed TaB as being on life support, some industry observers recognized TaB’s loyal niche and believed that the brand could be resuscitated with the right advertising campaign. In the early 1990s, Coca-Cola surprisingly initiated its first marketing efforts for TaB since 1987. A series of commercials with the theme “TaB is me” targeted TaB’s continuing niche: educated, middle-class, calorie-conscious women. The ads showed a group of women, many younger than in previous campaigns, discussing how TaB helps them watch their weight. In another ad, a woman is asked by her husband if she has lost weight. As she smiles slyly, sipping a Tab, Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus plays. The “Hallelujah” tag line was in part designed to counter Diet Pepsi’s “Uh-huh” commercial catch phrase. The new series of ads prompted “you’ve come a long way, baby” optimism from Tom Pirko, president of the beverage consulting firm Bevmark, who proclaimed, “TaB could be the Virginia Slims of colas” (Fahey and Taylor).
From the Cola War Era to New Age: The Clear Crusade
Cola competition branded 1980s consumer culture, the climactic debacle occurring mid-decade with Coca-Cola’s stunning introduction of “New Coke” as a potential replacement for its secret, sacred formula. The company continued to cope with the lingering aftertaste of the formula fiasco into the next decade. By the early 1990s, New Age consciousness with prohealth and pro-environmental preferences became a blossoming segment of American culture. One of the by-products of the lifestyle was “the clear movement.” A wave of new and “new and improved” goods with no artificial colorings emerged. From cleaning items and soaps to deodorants and beer, the see-through sensibility seduced consumers with products packaged in clear containers, with lucid, light images and sparkling slogans proclaiming “pure,””clean,””healthy,” and “natural.”
There were indications that consumers were ready for the lucrative soft drink industry to enter the new age as well. Alternatives such as natural sodas and lightly flavored low-calorie drinks were increasingly appealing to cola customers and the calorie conscious. Manufacturers, cautious of the clear campaign and its possible short-term, novel nature, initially pursued the safe route before engaging in widespread experimentation. Coca-Cola, which already had Nordic Mist, a line of clear soft drinks in five fruit flavors, introduced the sport drink Powerade. The company also pumped promotional life into its twenty-six-year-old Fresca. For Coca-Cola, commitment to developing a colorless cola was minimal, a counter strategy at best, designed to stalemate Pepsi’s move and assure a share of the market should the transparent trend sustain. In 1993, Pepsi launched Crystal Pepsi, a clear, caffeine-free, low-calorie soda with natural flavorings and no preservatives. Coca-Cola took the Pepsi challenge, responding to its rival with TaB Clear, also sugar-free with no calories but containing caffeine and sweetened with NutraSweet (aspartame). While Pepsi supported its new drink with a $40 million advertising budget that included showcasing during the Super Bowl’s commercial spectacle, Tab Clear arrived with considerably less fanfare. Its initial distribution was limited to Atlanta, Boston, Houston, Minneapolis, and San Francisco, followed by five more cities. The drink did not reach New York until late in the year.
Once again, the outcast TaB was cast as a corporate pawn, its stepchild status solidified within Coca-Cola despite a thirty-year shelf life. TaB’s archenemy within, CEO Robert Goizueta, who had maneuvered Diet Coke’s inception at TaB’s expense a decade earlier, recognized another opportunity to exploit the drink. From the earliest developmental stages, Goizueta expressed no confidence in a caramel, colorless cola category. He considered the clear commodities a curiosity and craze. Nor was Goizueta overly concerned with the competition and the early momentum that Pepsi had seized. (At one time, he wrongly referred to Crystal Pepsi as “Pepsi Clear.”) However, the executive was determined to make a point internally about how fast the system could work if directed properly. Some TaB devotees within the ranks viewed the TaB Clear project as an opportunity to revitalize the parent drink’s declining market share. Goizueta was indifferent, and his aims were different. He hoped that the endeavor would demonstrate expeditious action, decisiveness, and risk taking at a time when little such activity was evident in Coca-Cola’s corporate culture (Greising 227).
Coca-Cola accomplished one of Goizueta’s primary objectives: TaB Clear advanced from formulation to store shelves in a mere sixty days. Expediency notwithstanding, the drink appeared on a doomed mission from conception. Goizueta never believed in the product and resented having to work closely on details of launching a minor brand, especially in the waning days of his reign over Coca-Cola’s kingdom (Greising 228). Predictably, Goizueta refused to anoint the bastard beverage TaB-whether in its original color or clear formulas-with the Coca-Cola name. In his view, TaB had never been worthy of Coke’s heritage. Doug Ivester, president of Coca-Cola North America and Goizueta’s eventual successor, was slightly more diplomatic with product perspective. “Clear Coke is an oxymoron,” explained Ivester (Bryant).
Industry analysts viewed Coca-Cola’s use of its second-tier brand, rather than attaching the Coke name to the drink, as a safe decision primarily designed to revive the orphaned, floundering TaB from near extinction. “It’s kind of a Milquetoast approach,” said Bevmark president Pirko (McCarthy). The move avoided a direct challenge to Pepsi, which was willing to attach its strongest brand name to Crystal Pepsi. In doing so, Pepsi appeared to have an advantage in establishing a third cola category beyond traditional colas and diet colas.
The marketing plan for TaB Clear lacked cohesion. “[TaB Clear] will be marketed for what it is a study in contradictions,” said Coca-Cola’s Ivester (“Soft Drinks Enter a New Age” 92). Company characterizations of the drink were confounding, ranging from “a full flavored cola” to “a mainstream soft drink” to “an entirely new kind of soft drink” (Jabbonsky 6). The lack of focus carried over to the New Age appeal advertising campaign. The slogan “It’s not what you think” echoed like hollow hyperbole leftover from the bombastic cola wars. And the catchphrase “the ultimate diet soft drink” was a contradictory claim to Diet Coke. Ironically, advertising messages for TaB Clear were not clear at all, according to market tests. Research Systems found that the introductory television spots for TaB Clear achieved a persuasion score of just 1.1 percent. The expected level for a new soft drink is generally in the four percent range (Fawcett).
Perhaps most importantly, TaB Clear’s taste, variously described as “cinnamony” and “mysterious,” did not convert consumers to clear. Even TaB devotees expressed little enthusiasm. “Not like TaB” was a common taste test response (Bryant). Less than one year after its inauguration, the fateful forecast for the clear cola category proved a prophecy fulfilled. In early 1994, Goizueta and Coca-Cola pulled TaB Clear from the market.
Banished Brands and Death Row
TaB joins a long line of products that have been gradually exiled toward possible extinction. Ovaltine, Bosco syrup, Maypo, Jiffy Pop, Ajax, Rinso, and Lux soaps and detergents; Yuban and Chase and Sanborn coffees; men’s grooming products such as Aqua Velva, Vitalis, Wild Root, and Brylcreem; Porcelana fade cream, Sen-Sen breath mints, Clove, Clorets, and Chiclets gums; Pabst Blue Ribbon beer, Pepsodent toothpaste, and Good and Plenty candy are among the many once popular products that have evolved into “ghost brands,” goods that are ghosts of their former selves on store shelves and in the consumer consciousness (Elliott). Survivors such as Tab have been relegated from coveted eye-level shelf space reserved for prime products to rows closer to the floor, a low level regarded as “death row.”
Banishing these bits of Americana became an inevitability. As competition increased at supermarkets, drug stores, and retail outlets during the past twenty years, so did the commodity clutter and consumer confusion. There were too many products and too little shelf space. Technology, shifting tastes, niche markets, profitable private-label products bearing store-brand names, discount brands appealing to the savings-conscious, and companies changing focuses, downsizing, or selling out were among the contributing factors that left many brands overlooked, orphaned, or as a worst case scenario, obsolete. Another major catalyst of the accelerated death rate for products has been the Universal Price Code (UPC), the bar code symbol on packaging that is scanned at the checkout counters. Though the code has been used since the early 1980s, the information it yields has become increasingly detailed, and the analysis more precise about selling patterns and inventory turnover. The UPC has shifted the power and control of the fate of brands from manufacturers and marketers to retailers who “know, as never before, the velocity at which brands move off their shelves” (Elliott).
Manufacturers have employed various strategies designed to stimulate and sustain these fading, well-known products. Special promotions, updating the packaging, modernizing with makeovers, and nostalgic ad campaigns are practical methods that require minimal investment of resources. Other options for products include regionalization, redefining roles, discounting as “compare and save” or “super value” brands, targeting a different demographic appeal, or combining the product with similar, more popular sibling brands and lines. When parent companies prefer not to recommit to in-house brand resurrection, they can license the struggling product to smaller, risk-taking agencies that specialize in reclamation and rejuvenation of projects.
No matter the marketing method, companies are reluctant to totally abandon the precarious products. They recognize that brand longevity, in large part, can be attributed to the lingering loyalty from a devoted target audience often enchanted with nostalgia. The products contain memories of bygone eras and experiences. Frequently, consumers forge an emotional bond with the product. As the attachment intensifies and meaning accumulates over an extended period of time, the product becomes more iconic and ingrained as part of an individual or group identity.
Cult Classic?: Old TaBits Die Hard
“Not that many people like TaB.”
Lauren Steele, Coca-Cola Bottling Consolidated (McKay B4)
As its fortieth anniversary arrives in 2003, TaB endures incongruously as a bastard brand and cherished artifact. Despite its continuous neglect of TaB, Coca-Cola remains willing to indulge the small group of TaB drinkers. “We want to make sure that those who want TaB get TaB,” says current Coca-Cola CEO Douglas Daft. “It shows you care” (McKay B1).
Coca-Cola’s good customer relations may be little more than parent company posturing. Because the burden of supply lies primarily with the bottling companies, TaB represents very little financial risk to Coca-Cola. With no promotion costs, Coca-Cola’s modest profit (approximately $200 million annually) comes from selling TaB concentrate to its bottlers that produce and distribute the drink. As the cola competition intensifies, many bottlers have discontinued TaB because of low demand and a ninety-day shelf life. 2 The sharpest decline took place in 2000, when US sales of TaB dropped thirteen percent to four million unit cases, compared with 864 million cases of Diet Coke. (One unit case is 24 eight-ounce servings).
Since 2000, most bottlers limit TaB’s production to cans and its distribution to grocery chains. In the few areas where TaB is most popular, it is available in the newly designed, narrow twelve-can “fridge packs.” TaB in twenty-ounce bottles is obsolete, while its availability in two-liter plastic bottles and at convenience stores in cans is sparse. TaB in vending machines is such a rarity that even die-hard TaB drinkers would be wise to check the freshness date. In keeping with the consumer convenience and comfort of the times, TaB is also accessible on the Internet. The Dr. Soda Co. Web site in Pacoima, California, sells approximately sixty cases of TaB per week, despite exorbitant shipping costs. According to company owner Don Rubenstein, one customer in Japan paid $137.62 for a single case (McKay B4).
TaB’s iconic evolution has synergistically solidified a subculture of compulsive low-calorie cola consumers with a collector’s mentality. Loyalist lore accumulates into a tableau of passionate pursuit and possession, stockpiles and stashes. There are entertaining accounts of greedy TaB drinkers selfishly refusing to offer guests one of their TaBs at picnics and parties; TaBaholics driving one hundred miles round trip to buy TaB; homes with second refrigerators designated exclusively for TaB; connoisseurs chilling the drink at 34 degrees Fahrenheit; and junkie-like jargon and desperation in grocery store aisles, asking the “Coke supplier” stocking the shelves, “Got any?,” then following him “out back” to “buy some” off the truck, a practice rivaled only by the short-lived Jolt Cola with “all the sugar, twice the caffeine” during the early 1990s. 3
TaB’s survival can largely be credited to its quirky, clinging congregate. Over the years, the spirited subculture has circulated “Save TaB” petitions, created “TaB art” out of cans, attempted to publish a fanzine called TaB to the Bone, and tried to organize a TaBstock festival. As TaB becomes more scarce, devotees have grown increasingly vocal, lobbying Coca-Cola consumer hotlines and managers at corporate headquarters. When Charlotte, North Carolina, bottlers ceased production of TaB, an overwhelming number of complaints forced the Carolina company to buy TaB from another Coca-Cola bottler in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and sell it to grocery chains and consumers willing to pay for delivery costs to its area (McKay B4).
TaB’s iconic evolution has also been perpetuated in a scattering of kitschy cameos in television and film, which depict TaB in visual nods to an era, wordplay, and as the drink of choice among off-beat, time-warped, calorie-conscious characters. On the sassy sitcom Will and Grace (NBC), Jack mentions TaB during a spat with Will, suggesting that the diet drink is a staple of the gay lifestyle. In Neil Simon’s Only When I Cry (1981), a two-liter plastic bottle of TaB towers amidst the snacks on an alcoholic actress’s (Marsha Mason) living room table. In Back to the Future (1985), time-traveling teenager Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) arrives from the 1980s in a 1950s diner where he asks for a TaB. The equally disoriented soda fountain clerk responds, “You’ve got to order something first.” Ernie McCracken (Bill Murray) orders a TaB and Tanqueray at a lounge in the Farrelly brothers’ Amish bowling flick King Pin (1996). In Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (1997), femme bot (Elizabeth Hurley) comforts the era-challenged secret agent Austin Powers (Mike Myers) reclining in front of a coffee table strewn with empty TaB cans: “I forgot that you missed out on the last thirty years.” Another eccentric private detective, Daryl Zero, has a refrigerator stocked entirely with TaB in Zero Effect (1998). In the “underground” comedy Blast From the Past (1999), paranoid parents (Christopher Walken and Sissy Spacek) have a stockpile of TaB in the bomb shelter where they have lived for thirty-five years. TaB may have received its biggest endorsement via product placement in The Mexican (2001), when Julia Roberts sips from a pink can of TaB in a mall food court. The brief scene featuring one of America’s biggest stars may have compensated for all of the years of advertising neglect by Coca-Cola.
TaB played an unusual heroic role in the Centennial Olympics in Atlanta in 2000. During the course of multibillion dollar sponsorship negotiations in the mid-1990s, the relationship between Coca-Cola and Olympic Games organizers had become deeply adversarial. After Coca-Cola’s top officials failed to close deals before deadlines, Stu Cross, who had spearheaded spectacles such as “Big TV” and “Super Bowl Bash” for Coca-Cola, became an intercessor. At his first meeting with Olympic Organizing Committee Chairperson A. D. Frazier, Cross’s peace offering was a cooler in Frazier’s office continuously filled with TaB until the games concluded (Greising 226).
TaB references have also surfaced on the early morning show circuit. On NBC’s Today Show (August 2001), host Katie Couric nostalgically invoked the names of TaB and Fresca during a discussion of teenage body shape and image. TaB was a prevalent theme of co-anchor Antonio Mora’s farewell festivities on the set of Good Morning America in 2002. A cake was decorated in a TaB motif, and the cast and crew supplied Mora with six-packs of TaB as a parting gift in case his favorite drink was unavailable in his new locale.
TaB’s clinging life support depends almost solely on its longtime following. TaB romantics await a nostalgic revival for their beloved beverage, hoping it may be only a matter of time before TaB makes a comeback like other cultural icons of previous eras. Such a resurgence is improbable. TaB currently maintains a micro-niche 0.5 percent share in the saturated soft drink market. Those numbers are not likely to shift one way or the other. With no national advertising for nearly ten years, no brand manager within Coca-Cola’s corporate hierarchy, bountiful beverage competition, and a disposable consumer culture, TaB is not positioned to attract a significant number of new taste testers, curious cola consumers, or converts beyond its subculture. At best, there may be some small-scale generational continuity from children who “inherit” Tab as a family heirloom or habit from their parents. 4 TaB’s novel nature contains potential appeal to a younger segment that might view its three letters on a pink background as an insignia of anachronistic curiosity, kitsch, nonconformity, and low-calorie cool; being such a rarity translates into “hip.”
TaB remains unique beyond its scarcity. The forty-year TaBloid transcends conventional cola chronicles. TaB persists as parody and paradox, a product with an iconoclastic, idiosyncratic presence. While American culture’s most popular soft drinks are variously characterized as “un colas” (7-Up), “misunderstood” (Dr. Pepper), and “classic” (Coke), TaB’s unassuming, unattached, uncommon shelf life clearly and quirkily qualifies the brand as a cult classic.
1. These are actual comments made to me by checkout clerks scanning my TaB purchases at our local Winn Dixie. As of this writing, Kroger is the only store that stocks TaB in our town.
2. Regarding shelf life, a droll clerk once asked as I was checking out with some TaB, “What’s the freshness date on this stuff–1973?”
3. In addition to my “buy direct” adventure, my experiences as a TaBaholic include death dreams and cautionary tales. In one subconscious narrative, I am buying TaB in the checkout lane. As the clerk looks up to tell me my total, I am a mere skeletal figure writing a check. In another, I am a mysterious victim in an episode of the X-Files. After coming across a corpse, Agent Scully examines the remains and looks up at her intrigued partner, Mulder, to offer an apparent cause of death. “TaB,” she says bluntly. In my awakened life, my mother-in-law is one of my primary TaB enablers. Because the drink is more available in her Mississippi market, she always has a case or two of TaB and a few two-liter bottles for me every time we visit, even if for just a weekend. However, as a grandmother, she prefers that our two children not indulge in the beverage.
4. Some of the longtime TaB drinkers who experienced the 1970s saccharine-scare era may be around longer than expected. They celebrated a health reprieve in May 2000 when the Department of Health and Human Services removed the artificial sweetener saccharine used in TaB from the list of carcinogens where it had been since 1981. Come to think of it, I have not had a TaB death dream since the announcement.
Allen, Frederick. Secret Formula: How Brilliant Marketing and Salesmanship Made Coca-Cola the Best-Known Product in the World. New York: Harper-Collins, 1994.
Bryant, Adam.”Coke Adds a Clear Cola To Its ‘New Age’ Stable.”New York Times 15 Dec. 1992: D5.
Chadwick, Kyle.”Coke Gives Tab A Second Chance.”AdWeek’s Marketing Week 17 July 1989: 17.
Elliott, Stuart.”The Famous Brands on Death Row.”New York Times 7 Nov. 1993: 3+.
Fahey, Alison, and Cathy Taylor. “New Tab Spots Coming Regionally.”Brandweek 10 Aug. 1992: 3.
Fawcett, Adrienne Ward. “New TaB Clear Ads Lacking Power of Crystal Pepsi’s Effort in Persuasiveness Measure.”Advertising Age 23 Aug. 1993: 32.
Giges, Nancy.”Why Coke Delayed on Reformulating Tab.”Advertising Age 21 May 1984: 2+.
Giges, Nancy.. “Tab Turning ‘Sassy’ in Coke Brands’ Blitz.”Advertising Age 1 Nov. 1984: 2+.
Greising, David. I’d Like to Buy the World A Coke: The Life and Leadership of Roberto Goizueta. New York: Wiley & Sons, 1998.
Jabbonsky, Larry.”No Clear Winner.”Beverage World Jan. 1993: 6.
McCarthy, Michael J.”Coke Hopes to Revive TaB as Clear Cola.”Wall Street Journal 15 Dec. 1992: B1, B8.
McKay, Betsy.”Why Coke Indulges (the Few) Fans of Tab.”Wall Street Journal 13 Apr. 2001: B1+.
Pendergrast, Mark. For God, Country, and Coca-Cola: The Unauthorized History of the Great American Soft Drink and the Company That Makes It. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1993.
“Soft Drinks Enter a New Age.”Progressive Grocer Feb. 1993: 92.
[George Plasketes] maintains a twelve-pack per week “TaBit” (when available), with diet cherry, lemon, and vanilla Cokes recently rotated into his cola chorus line and an occasional bottled water chaser. [He is a Professor of radio-television-film in the Department of Communication and Journalism at Auburn University in Alabama.]
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