Have you ever been browsing the insufficiently extreme soda aisle at your local grocery store and found yourself wondering, "What ever happened to Surge, one of the most extreme caffeinated soft drinks of the 1990s?" Well, you're not alone. Surge was a popular but extremely short-lived carbonated phenomenon that embodied '90s-ness so purely, it petered out pretty much exactly when the '90s did.
Even though the Coca-Cola Company dominated the overall worldwide soda market for decades, when it came to citrus-flavored drinks, its products could never compete with Pepsi's neon-yellow goliath, Mountain Dew. After years of trying to snag market share from Mountain Dew with the decidedly-not-extreme Mello Yello, Coke switched gears and tried to beat them at their own teen-focused game by rolling out Surge in 1997. But Surge never found a real foothold in the market and, after a series of missteps by one of the most controversial marketing minds in the business - and then even more missteps by his successor - the soda was finally discontinued in 2003.
It seemed like Surge had lived a short but wild life, filled with chaotic commercials featuring soda-obsessed teenagers risking their lives to "feed the rush" and trampling one another for a shot at chugging a bottle of glowing green ooze. But Surge loyalists would not go so quietly. In the mid-aughts, a small but determined group of headstrong Surge-ites rallied the internet to demand that Coke bring Surge back, and in the end, they actually succeeded. Here's the winding, twisting tale of Surge's rise, fall, and eventual rebirth.
Before Surge was introduced into American markets, Coca-Cola tried to satisfy the citrus-inclined soda cravings of Norwegians with a drink called Urge. The soda took off in a big way in Norway in 1996, and soon expanded into Denmark and Sweden. In 1997, Coca-Cola slapped that extra "S" on the moniker and brought the drink to the United States.
While Surge's life in the US was disappointingly short-lived - as was Urge's tenure in Demark and Sweden, where it was discontinued in 2001 - the drink still exists in Norway. In fact, it was rebranded as an even more intense energy drink, and the product line currently includes numerous different flavors, including Urge Sitrus, Urge Zero Sugar, and something called Urge Chill Guarana Uten Sukker.
The main reason Surge was ever introduced to the US at all is because Coca-Cola had become envious and scared of Pepsi's quickly growing powerhouse soda, Mountain Dew. As Dew's consumer base skyrocketed and Pepsi's market share grew, Coca-Cola decided they needed something, anything, that could take a bite out of Dew's profits and customer pool. But long before they turned to their overperforming Scandinavian dynamo Urge, they first looked to a soda named after a '60s folk song.
Coca-Cola thought, for a while, that Mello Yello - a similar citrus-flavored drink with a high caffeine content - could tap the same market and appeal to the same audience. They even scored a big pop culture integration when Tom Cruise's character in the 1990 racing-themed movie Days of Thunder drove a Mello Yello-branded stock car. But by the mid-'90s, Mello Yello's hip rebrand hadn't taken off like Coke had hoped, and the company knew they needed to switch things up.
If there were any doubts about Coca-Cola's intention to use Surge to topple Mountain Dew and rein in Pepsi's growing market share, the drink's cute interoffice nickname put that to rest. Coke employees referred to the drink internally as "MDK," an abbreviation for the highly unambiguous phrase "Mountain Dew Killer."
Putting aside the fact that this nickname is several syllables longer than the name of the drink, the title turned out to be merely aspirational. To this day, Mountain Dew remains a top-5-selling soda in the country.
In 1992, Pepsi debuted what would go on to be one of the most influential and remarkable marketing slogans of the decade: "Do the Dew!" This was the start of the soda giant's efforts to rebrand the soft drink to appeal to the youth of the '90s. This was a huge paradigm shift for the brand; Mountain Dew started out as a "country brand," according to former Mountain Dew manager Dave Burwick. Its name reportedly referred to a slang term for moonshine alcohol; its original mascot was an animated bumpkin prospector, and it featured folksy slogans like "It'll tickle yore innards."
Then came "Do the Dew." When this new mantra was latched onto the burgeoning popularity of extreme sports, the connection was almost instant. Pepsi focused their Mountain Dew ads on BMX bikers and skateboarding, and made their brand the unofficial sponsor of living an "extreme" lifestyle. Bill Bruce, the ad designer behind the original campaign, recalled to Sports Business Journal that, when he came on board, "There was a rebellion going on. MTV was playing some stuff from different athletic worlds. What jumped out at me was the idea of people just pushing themselves." To this day, the soda's primary advertising slogan is still "Do the Dew."