In mid-August, The Coca-Cola Co. announced a new flavor of their flagship soda coming to the United States: cinnamon Coca-Cola! The company plans to supply the beverage from Sept. 30 to Dec. 31, 2019.
The drink was polarizing during its run in the United Kingdom, and even more so for Pepsi’s equivalent cinnamon soda, “Fire,” despite the advent of the Freestyle machines and easy access to a dozen soda variants per Coke product. But holiday-themed sodas are far from the strangest concoction in the history of Coca-Cola. Here’s a look at a few ideas that went flat and one yet to fizzle out.
The year was 1985. Competition with Pepsi undermined the Coca-Cola empire. Coca-Cola’s market share had slowly slipped from 60% to 24% in the past 40 years, while Pepsi had just launched a highly successful taste test commercial and signed a deal with Michael Jackson, hot off the success of “Thriller.” Coke needed something to revitalize their nearly century-old company.
Marketing executive Sergio Zyman, and the president of the company, Brian Dyson, spearheaded a terrible idea. Why not take Coca-Cola, a soda known as the unchanging foundation of soda with a recipe altered only in caffeine amount since 1903, and change the recipe? After all, the taste test commercials called out Coca-Cola as the worse-tasting soda.
New Coke fully replaced the classic formula in April 1985. The public was outraged, with many decrying Coca-Cola as the destroyers of a national institution. Within 79 days, the old formula returned. While New Coke, also known as Coke II, stayed in production until 2002, it became more of an aftertaste in the public imagination, with minuscule sales and meager shelf presence.
When asked if the whole enterprise was a ploy to revitalize public interest, executive Don Keough replied, “We’re not that dumb, and we’re not that smart.” Sadly, you just missed a limited run edition today of New Coke thanks to “Stranger Things.”
Zyman, of New Coke fame, got to launch a new product for Coca-Cola, though he wisely stayed away from the flagship soda itself. He received some inspiration from a company survey. They found Coca-Cola was one of the most recognized terms in the world. Just above it was the word “OK,” and in 1993, Zyman released his latest brainchild.
The really memorable aspect of OK Soda was the marketing. Zyman decided to embrace early ‘90s irony and go postmodern. The cans were stark combinations of red, light gray and black with uncanny valley portraits, jumbled text and an ominous square of “OK.” Commercials were meta and offbeat, referencing chain letters, self-help books and the soulless aspects of advertising itself.
While OK Soda’s marketing was memorable, the product was not. Some compared the drink to Coca-Cola combined with fruit soda and other colas, a combination described as … okay. Few were likely to recommend OK Soda on its merits as a soda.
The advertising also simply did not work for the product. The stark sarcasm in the attack on commercials makes the viewer forget they’re supposed to buy a soda after watching. Besides, irony can sell many products, but food is not one of them. Low sales and poor testing ended OK Soda in 1995.
Life can be divided by where you receive caffeine. One grows from “no caffeine” to “soda” to “coffee.” Why not combine steps two and three? In April 2006, Coca-Cola announced Coca-Cola Blak, a blend of “the refreshing taste of an ice-cold Coca-Cola that finishes with a rich essence of coffee,” according to Coca-Cola Senior Vice President Katie Bayne; she also claimed Coca-Cola Blak was intended for more adult soda drinkers.
With a stylish gold and black bottle and low calories, the company wanted a product that could entice the mature demographics in need of caffeination and soda pop, without a sugar rush.
Unfortunately, Coca-Cola did not guess the average coffee or cola drinker would not want the drink. Coca-Cola Blak sold so poorly it, along with New Coke, holds a place in Dr. Samuel West’s Museum of Failure. The company discontinued production stateside by August 2007.
Some have speculated the high price ($1.99 a bottle) or the narrow intended audience (“over-30 ‘savvy, sophisticated achiever,’”) ended the soda. If the idea entices you, however, fear not. International Coca-Cola groups have released similar Coke-coffee fusions, and the company intends to release another round of Coca-Cola Blak in the States. More caffeine power to them.
Orange Vanilla Coke
In February 2019, Coca-Cola debuted their first Coke flavor in a decade. Orange Vanilla Coca-Cola hit the shelves earlier in the year with a vintage ‘70s car chase commercial and billboards as far as the eye can see. The soda sort of makes sense. The Fortune article referenced above notes the success of other products like cherry and vanilla coke, which are ostensibly similar ideas.
The growth of Coca-Cola’s Freestyle machines shows a love for a wide range of Coke products with many an additive. Then again, citrus flavors don’t mix as well with Coke as sweeter flavors like vanilla and cherry. According to official reports, Coca-Cola experienced some growth thanks to the new cola, and responses have ranged from glowing and raving to “medicine-y aftertaste” or overpowering itself to barely identifiable. Speaking from personal experience, the competing flavors did ruin the soda.
The soda did find itself in controversy during June. Public persona and botched Pepsi saleswoman, Kendall Jenner, uploaded a picture on Instagram of her buying an Orange Vanilla Coke, prompting speculation that Coca-Cola hired her. The theory is a stretch, and Coca-Cola denied the allegations. If the company did, they reached a wide audience: The post received nearly 5 million likes. Fashion brand Rat & Boa received a huge boost simply from Jenner wearing one of their shorts to Coachella, so her impact moves units. Perhaps…
Despite being something of a constant for over a century, Coca-Cola has a bizarre series of too-weird-to-live, too-rare-to-die variants and products. From the foolish New Coke to the bizarre OK Soda, to the ill-conceived Coca-Cola Blak to the mildly controversial Orange Vanilla Coke, the company’s history can be a rewarding dive.
But Coca-Cola can be more than interesting anecdotes. The stories above demonstrate how corporate America can be out of touch with the layperson and how advertising can become a psychological quagmire. We’ve been the Coca-Cola generation for decades now: Perhaps they are that smart.