In 1993, I was a college senior and my roommate and I were heavy Pepsi buyers. We embraced any and all innovation from Pepsi including the Cube, which Pepsi said was easier to carry but I think we just bought it because it was new and looked cool.
Then, riding the wave of a clear product fad from dishwashing liquid to deodorant, came Crystal Pepsi. It promised the great taste of Pepsi but without any caffeine, so my roomie and I could rehydrate with it after games of pick-up basketball at the rec center. We bought quite a lot of it as I recall, but we hardly knew it before it was gone from the shelves by early 1994. That turned out to be not quite true because it reappeared several months later as Crystal “from the makers of Pepsi” with a citrus formulation (the can on the right below), but that was short-lived as well.
Two decades of cola darkness ensued but in 2015, thanks to the modern miracle of social media, 37,000 people signed a change.org petition to bring back Crystal Pepsi. On August 8, 2016, the wisdom (or folly) of crowds prevailed and Crystal Pepsi was re-released into the market in 20oz bottles for an eight-week run.
This 23-year sub-brand odyssey contains a number of interesting marketing and brand strategy lessons and I’ve taken my stab at them below.
1. The Best Marketing is a Great Product – David Novak, the now-retired Yum brands CEO who has been labeled the ‘inventor’ of Crystal Pepsi, claims that it flopped not because it wasn’t a great idea but because the taste wasn’t right. His team was telling him it should taste more like regular Pepsi instead of whatever it tasted like. The greatest new product concepts along with the greatest launch marketing in the world will only result in great Trial (consumers buying the product for the first time). Repeat, (buying more than once) only comes if consumers enjoy the taste of the product more than their other options. Thus as strange as it may sound, the best marketing is a great product. In this case the product may have had issues which led to low Repeat, but I’m not sure that’s where the issues ended.
2. Beware of Brand Over-stretch – The original launch of Crystal Pepsi was a textbook case of brand over-stretch. Pepsi’s brand stands for cola, and cola means dark liquid. The notion of a clear Pepsi was potentially antithetical to the brand in the consumer’s mind. It was like launching Folger’s Sports Drink, or Starburst Chocolate. Another example that I witnessed first-hand during my time at General Mills was the launch of Betty Crocker cereal. Prior to launch it was highly touted internally and I remember hearing of concept scores that were through the roof. No wonder really, because the Betty Crocker brand is one of the most powerful food brands in the world. You could put Betty Crocker on almost any food product and get a solid to great concept score. But the heart of Betty Crocker is home baking. The idea of a ‘home-baked’ cereal is appealing in concept, but the reality of a fairly ordinary flake in cold milk didn’t live up to that idea. The brand had been over-stretched away from the warmth of home baking into the cold of manufactured cereal, the launch was a flop, and it was off the market within a couple of years.
3. Reboot it Right – The latest relaunch of Crystal Pepsi is actually the fourth incarnation. There was the original in 1993, then the aforementioned Crystal “from Pepsi” in 1994, then a 2005 international effort behind Pepsi Clear, and then the current in-and-out relaunch. This series of reboot attempts speaks to perhaps the greatest part of our human nature, the ability to forgive and the willingness to give second chances. There is, however, both a process and a timing aspect to capitalizing on that kindhearted nature. First there must be a complete mea culpa; admittance to wrongdoing and asking for forgiveness. Then there must be a long enough period of time before the public’s wound has healed and they are willing to see things in a favorable light again. Former US congressman Anthony Weiner was trying to short-cut this process when he went from sexting scandal in 2011 to attempted run at Mayor of NYC in 2013. He never really completed the mea culpa and certainly hadn’t given it enough time. Sure enough the public and media were still on the attack, he got caught again for similar misdeeds and he was soon out of the race.
While certainly less scandalous, the enormity of the Crystal Pepsi flop in 1993 required some significant time to fade and the immediate (less than a year gone by) launch of Crystal in 1994 was too soon, and too confusing with the new formulation. In contrast, Pepsi is now rebooting 20 years later after lots of post-mortem mea culpa articles have been written, interviews with key players given, and thousands of consumers signing a petition as their official act of forgiveness. That’s about as right as you can possible reboot.
4. Eventually You Can Leverage Brand Nostalgia – They say culture goes in 20-year cycles. So here we are, 20 years from the 1990s, and we’ve seen a huge renaissance of 1990s culture. We’ve got a Full House sitcom reboot (Fuller House), Doc Martens and flannel are back, and there is an enormously popular ‘I Love the 90s’ music tour featuring performers like Vanilla Ice, Color Me Badd and Young MC. Pepsi even linked to this 20-year nostalgia cycle with their relaunch party for Crystal Pepsi featuring Salt n Pepa, Lisa Loeb and Biz Markie, a Cut n Style salon where you could get your hair crimped or faded and a Crystal (Oregon) Trail video game. If you are a brand manager, what long-discontinued products do you have in your archive from 20 years ago? They may have a comeback in them right about now.
Will the Crystal Pepsi relaunch be successful? One could argue it already is because it started with so many consumers asking for it. It will be interesting to see if it becomes something akin to the McDonald’s “McRib” sandwich that continually makes an appearance from time to time. In fact, if we could sync up the timing I would love to wash down a McRib with a Crystal Pepsi while listening to “Ice, Ice, Baby” and wearing plaid flannel. Now if I could just get my roomie back for some pickup bball!