What’s better than regular Coke? Clear Coke, of course! Or, at least that’s what a majority of the top soda brands in the US thought back in the early '90s. Leading the "Clear Cola Craze" was PepsiCo., which released the first of many clear cola beverages, with their aspirational hit Crystal Pepsi. Anyone who grew up in the 1990s is likely to recall the suspiciously pure-looking soda, and its just-as-curious departure from stock shelves nationwide. So, what really happened to Crystal Pepsi, and the clear-cola movement that succeeded it?
The soda, first released in 1992, barely lasted the year before consumer reaction - or lack thereof - led to its being removed from circulation. But that wasn't the end for Crystal Pepsi - in fact, far from it. Thanks to a combination of nostalgia, marketing, and viral social media, the clear soda made not one but a few comebacks over the years, with the most recent rerelease being in 2016.
These returns were as surprising as they were confounding, and much to the dismay of PepsiCo., they didn't have much more success with the drink the second, or third, time around. Was the flavor to blame? Or was it simply a marketing strategy gone terribly wrong?
Crystal Pepsi Was First Released In 1992, Launching A ‘Clear Cola’ Craze
PepsiCo. first released Crystal Pepsi in 1992, to a limited number of regional markets (specifically in Denver, CO; Sacramento, CA; Dallas, TX; and Providence, RI). After establishing that there was in fact an apparent demand for a smooth, clear, cola-esque soda, they opted to continue their product release to stores nationwide.
By 1993, supermarkets had received an influx of Crystal Pepsi - but theirs wasn’t the only brand of newly released clear soda on the shelves. The success that PepsiCo. had seen in their trial run of the product had leaked out to competitors - particularly Coca-Cola, which decided to jump into the new market with its own brand of clear cola, Tab Clear.
Before consumers could even decide which one they preferred (if any at all), they found themselves in the middle of a full-blown Clear Cola Craze, being inundated with more clear soda options than they knew what to do with. And this didn’t turn out to be the best thing for Pepsi or their competitors.
Coca-Cola Followed With Tab Clear Because A Clear Coke Would Have ‘Aimed Too Low’
On December 14, 1992, Coca-Cola decided it was time to roll up their sleeves and release their very own clear soda in an effort to compete with Pepsi’s “Crystal Pepsi” release only one week earlier.
Sold under the moniker “Tab Clear,” Coke wanted to avoid creating too direct a comparison with its own Coke-specific label, adding insult to injury by stating that, “Clear Coke is an oxymoron,” and that to create a clear Coke modeled directly off of Pepsi’s would simply be “aiming too low.”
Still, many critics said that Coca-Cola’s decision to align their “clear” marketing push with Tab, a sub-brand marketed almost exclusively to older women, would place limits on consumer interest and essentially hand the market over to Pepsi. And despite Coca-Cola’s subtle efforts to avoid starting a direct competition between themselves and Pepsi, the Clear Cola Craze was upon them.
Crystal Pepsi Became Infamous For Their Super Bowl XXVII Commercial Featuring Van HalenVideo: YouTube
As has become the super-profitable trend for many companies year after year, the Super Bowl turned out to be the perfect place to promote PepsiCo.’s newest beverage. With the help of a well-crafted commercial that aligned almost perfectly with early ‘90s consumer ideals, Crystal Pepsi was strewn across television sets nationwide accompanied by the vocal stylings of Van Halen’s hit, “Right Now.”
The commercial features images of the clear soda alongside intentionally inspiring video clips. The clips include puzzling images of an animated baby who appears to be crawling around in what might be a desert or the bottom of the ocean, followed promptly by a chaotically spinning watch, a reminder that “right now computers still can’t laugh,” shots of animals running in the wild, and other such thought-provoking imagery. The takeaway? There’s no time like the present to enjoy a pure, crisp, clear Crystal Pepsi, so drink it “Right Now”!
Pepsi Pulled The Product By The End Of 1992 Because Of Plummeting Sales
Even though many Crystal Pepsi supporters at first believed that the soda “innovation” was “akin to when the chocolate industry began to sell white chocolate,” it quickly became apparent this was wishful thinking.
Due at least in part to an over-saturated market, the Clear Cola Craze didn’t last long in the US or abroad. Within a year of Crystal Pepsi’s initial release, the market became so inundated with copycat sodas - and a myriad of other clear products - that they were all essentially burned out. PepsiCo. had no choice but to pull back the product and do a big reassessment.