“Project Alpha”

(“Project Alpha”Atlanta Magazine, 1963 – by Bill Diehl)

The pensive gentleman below is taste-testing a new low-calorie soft drink, which is being introduced to the world this month. In a special report for Atlanta Magazine, here is the behind-the-scenes story of how “TaB� was born.

On a Monday morning in February, one act of an unusual industrial drama was plated out in the sedate boardroom on the fourth floor of The Coca Cola Company building on North Avenue. Eight men were present in the walnut-paneled room. Two were members of the omnipotent Packaging Committee, which says “yea� or “nay� to everything Coca-Cola Bottlers use, from bottle caps to vending machines. The others were members of a special team, which, for several months, had been working, in complete secrecy on the design of a new soft drink bottle. The meeting lasted only a few minutes. The committee nodded “yea.� The bottle became a production item.

More thrills were yet to come.

The bottle and the drink it introduced were made public three months later, almost to the day. With appropriate fanfare on the first of this month, TaB, an artificially-sweetened low-calorie soft drink (two calories per twelve-ounce bottle), was officially debuted by The Coca-Cola Company. Other dietary drinks preceded it, but it takes no prophet to predict that TaB will make a significant impression on that share of the consumer market commandeered by dietary beverages. The birth of this product took longer than the gestation of an elephant and involved almost as much agony as the birth of a baby. For there is more to the package on the grocer’s shelf that meets the housewife’s eager eyes.

The whole drama began slowly in 1958 when The Coca-Cola Company first started investigating the low-calorie soft drink market. At that time, dietetic beverages held a skimpy 1.5 per cent of the food store soft drink market in New York and the Mid-Atlantic states. “Weight Watchers� comprised only 18 per cent of the nation’s population and many of these succumbed to the whispers of their appetite and avoided dietary foods. But by the late 1961, cholesterol, the bulging waistline and middle-age spread had taken on the proportions of a national calamity and calorie counting had replaced the closing Dow Jones quotations as mathematical therapy in more than one executive suite. A project that had been moving at worm’s pace picked up speed. Eugene Boyd, head of The Coca-Cola Company’s Market Research Department, working with Neilson, began turning up some interesting facts. In Chicago, for instance, where Royal Crown’s Diet-Rite had introduced returnable bottles, canned beverages and [the bottles] brought the price of the dietary beverage in line with other soft drinks, [and] the market was rising. By January 1962, Diet-Rite and other low-calorie drinks held an impressive 3 per cent of the market. And “weight watching� had spread to 28 per cent of the nation’s eight-year-and-older population.

“When a market segment begins to grow,� said Fred Dickson, then president of Fanta Beverage Co., and now corporate Advertising Manager, “we investigate. If we feel it is profitable to enter that segment, we will produce a product which our bottlers need to become competitive in that market.�

In mid-June, J. Paul Austin, president of The Coca-Cola Company, initiated “Project Alpha�, a development program which was to take on all the aspects of a full-scale military invasion before it was over. In Coke, The Coca-Cola Company has the best-known single product in the world today. To meet daily world demands for something over seventy million drinks of Coke, the firm uses more sugar than any other single industry on the globe, and, together with Coca-Cola bottlers, is the world’s largest private owner of vehicles. Last year the Coca-Cola business purchased more than a billion paper cups, more than two million gross of bottles and spent $250 million on materials and supplies alone. From its position as unquestioned leader of the soft drink industry it had to produce, not a competitive drink, but the best drink and package possible. This responsibility rested squarely on the shoulders of “Project Alpha� head Fred Dickson and his committee. It was hardly an enviable task for they had to product a drink which would meet the sometimes fickle, always elusive tastes of the public. The committee consisted of Dr. C. A. Shillinglaw, head of the Technical Research Department, who would develop the flavor, Charles Adams, head of the Packaging Committee, who was responsible for the bottle, Gene Boyd, who was to direct research, and Neil Gilliatt of McCann-Erickson and Stewart Watson of McCann-Marschalk, who were responsible for the advertising.

Dr. Shillinglaw had until January 1, 1963 to prepare a test sample of the drink itself and the entire committee was to have the new drink ready for production by April 1, 1963. Thus “Project Alpha� was born.

Dr. Shillinglaw began work immediately on the flavor, while in Atlanta a methodical search got underway to find a name for the new drink. Meanwhile, in New York, a unique firm of industrial researchers set out to learn as much about the public’s dietary taste buds as possible. Behind closed doors and in utmost secrecy with Fred Dickson and Gene Boyd, substantial facts were uncovered concerning diet drinks. What they learned had an effect on almost every phase of “Project Alpha�, including what the drink should taste like and how its package line should look. They reported that the strongest potential market for dietary beverages was in the middle upper and upper income brackets, that twice was many women as men drank dietary beverages and that consumers frequently resist low-calorie drinks because they feel the drinks do not have the flavor or “bounce� of a regular soft drink.

Armed with these facts, Dr. Shillinglaw’s group, ramrodded by A.B. Allen of the Research and Development section, began to develop flavors. During the following months of intensive work on the beverage, the Shillinglaw team concentrated on two major complaints which cropped up with annoying regularity in the more than 100 taste tests made every day at The Coca-Cola Company’s ten 4×4 ft. taste booths. One was a “thinâ€� mouth feel, the second was the bitter after-taste often associated with sugarless drinks. But these weren’t the only headaches the team suffered.

When they attacked the sweetness problem they discovered existing sweetness level tables for artificial sweeteners were inaccurate for the heavy flavor concentration needed in soft drinks. New tables were devised.

A pretty young lab assistant in the flavor section developed a method for separating artificial sweeteners from beverages so comparison tests could be made.

Existing quality control standards for the manufacture of artificial sweeteners didn’t meet the company’s rigid standards. The Shillinglaw group devised new standards for them. A method had to be devised to measure the shelf-life of a drink that was still non-existent in a bottle that had not yet been designed. It was done.

Two weeks ahead of schedule the team headed by Dr. Shillinglaw produced not one, but two flavors, for consideration.

When the research department prepared to bottle test samples of the flavors for consumer testing a new problem cropped up—an inherent foaming reaction was discovered when highly carbonated, sugarless drinks are bottled. The research department used the entire Newnan, Georgia, bottling plant for a full day and worked outs its problem. At the same time they bottled 400 cartons of each of the two flavors and placed them in homes in Chicago, Los Angeles and Birmingham, left them for four days, then quizzed the families.

In the end it was the consumer who made the choice.

During this same period, the problem of selecting a name for the new drink was tackled. Market research on consumer likes and dislikes revealed certain criteria in naming a new product. The name, said research, should be short (somewhere between three and six letters). It should have impact and strong product identification. And most important of all, it should be easily remembered.

To simplify the problem, the IBM 1401 computer in the company’s Market Research Department was programmed to print all possible four-letter word combinations containing a vowel or vowel-sounding letter. The list was more than 250, 000 words long. To it was added a list of other names suggested by company personnel. Then the total list was culled to 600 names. The legal department took the list in hand and checked every name against existing trademarks or registered names by other companies. (there are more than 26, 000 trademarks registered every year.)

When the list was placed on Mr. Dickson’s desk for final selection there were less than two dozen choices. The final selection was TaB.

The task of designing a package line for TaB was as challenging as any other facets of this intriguing project. That The Coca-Cola Company said, in effect was: “We must design a bottle which will make a lasting impression on both the public and packaging industry. Aesthetically it must imply the same high quality customers have come to expect of all products from The Coca-Cola Company. That this drink is both tasty and easy on the diet must be implicit in thee design. The package must be completely new, it must have a shape with high remembrance value, it must have an identity all its won, it must have the same dimensions as other packages used by our bottlers and fit all existing machines for bottling and vending these products. “In other words it must be unique—but the same…�

In addition to meeting strict dimensional limitations, the new package line had to receive the approval of the company’s packaging committee. Its dimensions had to be compatible with existing Coca-Cola bottling plant case unloaders, bottle washers, fillers, crowners, automatic beverage inspecting machines, case packagers and vending machines. In short, the assignment required an absolutely wedding of aesthetics and engineering. The two could not be divorced.

The job of actually producing this new package went to Robert Sidney Dickens, noted Chicago designer. Although new to The Coca-Cola Company, Mr. Dickens was well known in the packaging industry for his design work on the Metrecal, Dial soap, Parker pens, Quaker Oats and many other products. Because the limitations imposed on him were mostly in the form of package specifically, a team from engineering works very closely with Mr. Dickens throughout the project. Their first step was to meet with the research department of The Coca-Coal Company.

“At the time� said Dickens, “we were thinking in terms of a slim, sleek package, something that would say low-calorie, less weight—that sort of thing. But research showed that people instinctively thought of a low-calorie drink as flat, thin, lightweight, lacking in body and flavor. The package therefore had to put across the fact that this was a low-calorie beverage and at the same time impress on customers that it was full-bodied, effervescent, flavorful. Actually this was diametrically opposed to our original thinking and so the job became even more challenging.�

Ken Yoshizumi, Dickens’ designer, set out immediately to learn all he could about the machinery used to bottle the company’s products and vend them. He spent a full day in a bottling plant watching bottle lines, case unloaders and case packers in action. He discussed glass manufacturing problems and the limitations of glass making equipment. Because of the limitations on the heel, shoulder and neckline of the bottle, it soon became apparent to Ken Yoshizumi that he was limited in what he could do creatively to about four inches of the bottle, roughly that are between the top of the heel and the shoulder of the bottle. So from the beginning, Dickens and Yoshizumi worked on a unique concept… a textured or knurled out surface on the bottle which was unlike anything that had ever been sued on a bottle before. In addition they planned to sue color on 60 per cent of the package. Regardless of the apparent problems involved in this design, their initial sketches convinced the company it was worth the effort.

A Lucite model first had to be made for presentation to the various committees involved in the project. Since a Lucite model with a textured surface had never been made before, a Chicago model maker hand-carved the entire jacket. This took a week longer than was anticipated and the model was not delivered to Dickens until late one Friday night in Chicago. The committee presentation was scheduled fro Monday morning in Atlanta. Ken Yoshizumi actually dyed the inside of the Lucite model in his bathtub to simulate the beverage, and had painted the color and name on the model in a motel room in Atlanta. It received enthusiastic approval from both the packaging and sales promotion committees, as well as from Mr. Austin and Chairman of the Board Lee Talley.

The next step was to work out actual manufacturing details. Their objective was the produce a single cavity sixteen-ounce sample bottle.

As they suspected, getting the desired texture in the bottle proved the biggest problem for Dickens and Yoshizumi. The machinery for putting the texture or knurled surface in a glass bottle works fine on a straight surface, but when it is used with a shaped or curved bottle it tends to fish-scale and distort. Several different curved patterns were tried on the same bottle to study them and determine whether it would be possible to simulate the texture. It was while running these patterns that Yoshizumi found the texturing machines would hold a pattern if applied at an angle. By combing a horizontal and vertical groove, and exaggerating this angle, Yoshizumi achieved almost the exact pattern he had been looking for.

The circular design areas in the textured surface of the bottle were added to give the bottle bounce and sparkle, since a textured surface had a flat or matte-finished look. These buttons had to be placed in such a way as to be aesthetically pleasing, and as the same time avoid the seam.

The ultimate shape of the bottle was dictated by two factors. First, the weight of the glass itself (the bottle had to be thick enough to carry the textured surface without weakening the body and shoulder are) and the production line (when bottles move down the line to the fillers tend to strike together so to confine this collision to the heel area, the shoulder of the bottle had to be designed to give proper clearance between the bottles).

When the acceptable sample was finally produced, the same series of on-line tests had to be carried out for ten and twelve-ounce packages since each of the desired sizes has different specifications.

Several different approaches were taken in developing the trademark, but the one which was finally submitted for approval began with classes, block letters. “We started with upper case letters,� says Sid Dickens. “Then we lower-cased the ‘a’ to give a feeling of informality and ‘t’ out over it. The ‘b’ remained the same. By exaggerating the ‘t’ we gave the trademark some memory value. The twist-around ‘a’ was used to focus attention on the name and give it a longer memory span. Finally the arrow was employed, pointing down to the slogan on the bottle.

The final judgment of the TaB bottle came in the package testing laboratory where the package was put through a vicious series of performance tests. Here the bottles was blown up from the inside, smashed from the outside, doused in hot and cold water with instantaneous temperature changes of 75 degrees, cut in half to study glass distribution, weighed, measured, checked for capacity, even checked with a polariscope to study the effects of cooling at the time the bottles was manufactured. It passed.

The tense timetable for TaB was met on April 1, 1963 and The Coca-Cola Company’s new dietary beverage was ready for production. What happens next depends largely on the public. He package will undoubtedly be subject for discussion with both the packaging industry and the public for a long time to come. As for the drink itself, its fate rests on the palate of the public.

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. ILoveTaB.com has no affiliation whatsoever with the originator of this article nor is ilovetab.com endorsed or sponsored by the originator.)

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