“It could have been more than just a novelty.”
-David Novak, creator of Crystal Pepsi
During the 90s, we were introduced to many new and exciting products. Back then, large corporations were more willing to take a chance without having everything market-tested or viewed from a thousand different angles by lawyers, subject experts, and consultants, only to produce a watered-down version of what everyone wanted anyway.
In the 90s, they took chances and sometimes succeeded. Unfortunately, there were often just as many failures.
Crystal Pepsi was supposed to become a billion-dollar idea. Instead, it wound up a colossal failure.
Starting with a smashingly successful Superbowl commercial featuring Van Halen, Crystal Pepsi debuted with much fanfare. Less than a year after it hit store shelves, the soft drink was pulled from circulation. It became a bit of a laughingstock that was later dubbed by TIME Magazine as one of the biggest product failures ever.
The rise and fall of Crystal Pepsi has always been fascinating to me. As a kid, I remember seeing Crystal Pepsi in stores with signs, cardboard standees, and all other sorts of advertising a new product tends to get. In the beginning of it’s run, Crystal Pepsi was advertised during nearly every commercial break on television. It may just be my imagination, but I can remember Mom and Dad had it in the fridge once or twice, too.
Then, suddenly it disappeared.
When it re-emerged two decades later, my wife and I went on the hunt. It was quite a happy day when she was doing our weekly grocery shopping and found a (literal) barrel full of them at the check-out line. She grabbed a handful, and we sampled one the minute she got home. It tasted like I remembered, or at least what I thought I remembered it tasting like, anyway. We enjoyed the rest of the bottles over the next week or so, and I’ve saved one in my nostalgia museum.
So, how did this clear soda come about and what exactly happened that made it go away so quickly?
In the early 90s, a marketing trend emerged. The “Clear Craze,” an official term used by marketing experts, began convincing the American public that clarity equaled purity. Perhaps you remember in the 90s that Ivory Soap, known for its milky consistency, reintroduced the product in clear liquid form with the slogan “99 and 44/100th percent pure.” Based on the success of Ivory Soap, personal hygiene products were relaunched as clear dye-free gels. You may also remember many electronics began being sold with transparent cases, such as phones or even the clear Gameboy so that you could see the computer components that made up the insides.
Following suit, the same trend emerged among soda companies. They began marketing the “clear” sodas as healthier products because of the lack of caramel coloring and less “acidic” taste they provided.
In 1992, sales of classic colas like Coke and Pepsi had grown stagnant. Lighter, clear soft drinks like Sprite or 7Up, saw their sales begin to rise.
David Novak, then the Executive Vice President of Marketing and Sales for PepsiCo, noticed that everything growing in sales was either clear or caffeine-free. He recalls, “I was sitting in my office, and it hits me: ‘Why not make a Pepsi that’s both?'”
He immediately called the CEO of Pepsi, Roger Enrico, with his elevator pitch. “I knew I was playing with all the family jewels because the company IS Pepsi Cola,” said Novak. He made a convincing case that modern soda drinkers (in 1992) wanted a lighter tasting, healthier alternative to regular cola.
Enrico agreed and gave the green light.
Novak immediately went to work, looping in food scientist Surinder Kumar, the junk food “wizard” behind the taste we all recognize as Nacho Cheese flavored Doritos. Kumar was the then head of Pepsi’s Research and Development branch, and he took notes as Novak laid out his vision. One thing Novak stressed was the importance of a transparent bottle to show off the drink’s hip, new, clear look.
Kumar immediately foresaw a problem so big it would eventually kill the product.
“I knew it had a strong possibility of going bad in clear bottles,” Surinder said. “Colas are brown for a good reason.” He goes on to explain that the color keeps sunlight from spoiling the drink and morphing it into a brew that “smells and tastes like shoe polish.”
This is why 7-Up and Sprite are sold in green bottles.
Kumar says he stressed this to Pepsi executives, but they told him the clear bottles were “important” and to “just figure it out.”
The goal for his team was lofty. They were to make a caffeine and preservative-free clear soda that tastes identical to the original Pepsi but wouldn’t eat into the sales of the company’s flagship product. Over the next few months, he and his team concocted a recipe that included a mix of sugars and salts – and a secret substitute for the caramel brown color and flavor, which he’s still not allowed to legally disclose.
Another problem for the Research and Development developed when Exectuvies from Pepsi wouldn’t divulge the complete list of ingredients from the secret recipe for regular Pepsi. Only a few executives had access to the coveted trade secret, making it even harder to replicate.
Some folks at Pepsi weren’t keen on marketing Crystal Pepsi as a “healthy” alternative. It was made with high fructose corn syrup and had a similar calorie count to the regular Pepsi Cola. Kumar complained to his superiors that if they were to market it as “pure and natural,” the ingredients should reflect that.
When focus groups didn’t seem to mind, the executive team quickly dismissed those concerns. “They loved it,” said David Novak. “So I rushed it into the test market.”
On April 13, 1992, Crystal Pepsi was introduced to a test market in Boulder, Colorado. It quickly became the hottest news item in the beverage industry. People were calling their friends and shipping six-packs around the country because everyone wanted to try the new Crystal Pepsi. Soon, test markets popped up in Denver, Sacramento, Dallas, Providence, and Grand Rapids. The results were all very positive, and the folks at Pepsi were pleased. They immediately set plans for a nationwide release in the new year.
While everyone at Pepsi was excited about the launch, David Novak said the clock in his mind was ticking. While the drink began to hit shelves in December of 1992, he wanted a nationwide launch in time for the $40 million ad campaign starting at the Super Bowl on January 31, 1993.
At breakneck speed for what is typically a glacial process for such a large corporation, the soda was rolled out just nine months from Novak’s first pitch to CEO Roger Enrico. By contrast, a few years earlier, it took three years for the company to launch the Slice brand soda.
“It wasn’t enough time to “accurately test its shelf-life,” warned Kumar. Bottlers gave Pepsi the first hint that something was wrong. “They said, ‘You have a really good idea; the problem is that it doesn’t have enough Pepsi Cola flavor in it,’” Novak says. “One of them told me, ‘Everybody will try this. The problem is nobody is going to retry it.”
It was a unique perspective that was eventually proven right. But at first, Crystal Pepsi was a smashing success.
Midway through the Super Bowl, a commercial debuted for the new “clear cola” and sparked a nationwide craze. Set to the immensely popular Gen-X anthem “Right Now” by Van Halen, the ad was hip and edgy. Featuring everything from an astronaut to a rhinoceros, the commercial showcased the translucent cola with the tagline, “Right now, we’re all thirsty for something different. Introducing Crystal Pepsi. You’ve never seen a taste like this.”
The soft drink was quickly the cool kid at the vending machine, and the commercial was the hot topic at the office water cooler.
The sales of the “pure and natural” spinoff of classic Pepsi soared following the Super Bowl ad. Within its first year, Crystal Pepsi captured over one percent of all soft drink sales in the United States, for approximately $474 million ($958 million in 2022 adjusted for inflation.)
Not to be outdone, Coca-Cola released “Tab Clear” on December 14, 1992, after the immediate positive reviews following Crystal Pepsi’s test run in Colorado. Coca-Cola’s Chief Marketing Officer, Sergio Zyma, described Tab Clear as a mutual destruction effort that was made to fail and take Crystal Pepsi down with it.
He, and Coke, hoped to kill off Crystal Pepsi by confusing soda drinkers into thinking of it as a “medicinal” health drink.
Coca-Cola’s Sergio Zyman states in the 2011 book “Killing Giants: 10 Strategies to Topple the Goliath in Your Industry,” that the company decided to sacrifice the reputation of the already failing Tab brand as an “intentional kamikaze” rather than damage the flagship Coke.
Coca-Cola had marketed the Tab brand as a “Diet” soda anyway, which was already the main reason the brand was already failing. The “sugar-free” label, relatively unpopular in 1992, would confuse customers into thinking that Tab Clear and Crystal Pepsi were “more medicinal” or “healthy” since they lacked sugar. To this day, Zyman takes great pleasure in saying, “Pepsi spent an enormous amount of money on the brand, and, regardless, we killed it. Both of them died within six months.”
Interestingly, Tab Clear wasn’t Coke’s first foray into the clear cola market. In the 1940s, a political favor between President Dwight D. Eisenhower and the Soviet Union created “White Coke,” a clear version of the cola that could pass as vodka. It was produced so that the Marshall of the Soviet Union, Georgy Zhukov, could drink his favorite drink in public. Coke was seen by the Soviet Union as a symbol of American imperialism, and Zhukov was hesitant to be photographed with the product he loved so much. So, the clear cola passed for water or vodka when needed! Cool history tidbit!
“It could have been more than just a novelty,” says Crystal Pepsi’s creator David Novak. “It was probably the best idea I’ve ever had – and the most poorly executed.”
In thinking back on how Crystal Pepsi went from pop culture darling to one of the beverage world’s biggest failures, Novak suggests it was the rush to launch before the recipe was finalized. But he, and many others, also point the finger at the “Crystal Gravy” kiss of death.
On an episode of Saturday Night Live in 1993, Crystal Pepsi was spoofed with a commercial parody of “Crystal Gravy.” In it, actress Julia Sweeny dunks fried chicken into a thick, viscous clear meat sauce while Kevin Nealon splashes it on his face in an absurdly funny bit.
Executives from Pepsi, especially Dan Novak, weren’t laughing. Novak laments, “they were basically saying it didn’t taste good.”
More serious dilemmas began to surface, including one Surinder Kumar warned about. Cases of Crystal Pepsi were being displayed in direct sunlight at gas stations or the windows of convenience stores and groceries. “That was the kiss of death,” Kumar said. As predicted, the ultraviolet rays from the sun caused the soda to spoil. Reports began flooding into Pepsi headquarters from customers saying the stuff tasted strange and was making people “sick to their stomach.”
Between Coke’s “anti-marketing” scheme with Tab Clear, the spoiled products, and the SNL skit, not many people tried Crystal Pepsi more than once.
By the end of 1993, sales were dropping, and Pepsi decided to discontinue production of the clear beverage. The final batches were delivered to retailers during the first few months of 1994 until supplies eventually ran out.
Novak focuses on the flavor, though. He still thinks the taste simply wasn’t good enough. “Because we rushed it, we were having product quality problems. It had more of an aftertaste than it should have had,” he said. “If we had gotten the flavor notes to taste more like [original] Pepsi Cola, it could have” been more than just a novelty,” he said. “A lot of times as a leader, you think, ‘They don’t get it; they don’t see my vision.’ People were saying we should stop and address some issues along the way, and they were right. It would have been nice if I’d made sure the product tasted good. Once you have a great idea and blow it, you don’t get a chance to resurrect it.”
Less than a year after its grand launch, Crystal Pepsi was gone from store shelves. Several months later, a reformulated citrus-cola hybrid was released called “Crystal from Pepsi.” Unfortunately, that too only lasted a few months before being discontinued.
Nostalgia is an odd thing, and even though it wasn’t the best soft drink ever made, soda drinkers everywhere fondly remember Crystal Pepsi. Whether it was the commercials, the hunt to find your first bottle, or just a reminder of a better time, Crystal Pepsi’s fan following never died down over the years. In fact, it seemed to grow.
Two decades later, in 2014, the soda was named by TIME Magazine as one of the “10 Biggest Product Fails of All Time.” TIME noted that many purchases were likely due to curiosity and one try was enough.
That same curiosity sparked an online buzz amongst soda fans. Nostalgia for the 1990s was also increasing as the children of the 90s began to enter their thirties and began to look back fondly at their childhood. Not-so-coincidentally, this caused Coca-Cola to bring back the 90s-hit soft drink “Surge” at the end of 2014 due to the rising customer demand for old brands from the 90s.
In the spring of 2015, the online demand hit it’s peak begging Pepsi to bring back Crystal Pepsi. Quickly, over 37,000 Change.Org petition signatures, tens of thousands of Twitter, YouTube, and Instagram comments, 15 billboards around Los Angeles, and a mobile billboard truck placed at Pepsi headquarters in Purchase, New York, materialized.
Kevin Strahle, known online as the competitive eating personality “The L.A. Beast,” filmed himself drinking (and immediately vomiting) a vintage 1993 bottle of Crystal Pepsi. The video went viral and increased the online demand for the clear cola’s return.
The interest in these campaigns led to an official response to L.A. Beast’s video from PepsiCo on June 8, 2015: “We’ve had customers ask us to bring back their favorite products before, but never with your level of enthusiasm and humor. We’re lucky to have a Pepsi superfan like you on our side. We definitely hear you and your followers, and you’ll all be happy with what’s in store. Stay tuned.”
After months of buildup, on December 9th, 2015, PepsiCo announced that Crystal Pepsi would return for a limited time. However, fans were quickly disappointed when they found they could only obtain a bottle in a sweepstakes giveaway online with the Pepsi Pass loyalty program. Winners received the beverage in time for Christmas, but many were left unhappy.
Due to the demand and participation in the sweepstakes, Pepsi decided to re-release Crystal Pepsi to the general public in several waves for limited release throughout 2016 and 2017.
On January 4th, 2022, the official Pepsi Twitter page announced another sweepstakes giveaway for 300 people to win Crystal Pepsi for the drink’s 30th anniversary. A Zero Sugar variant was reported to be released sometime in mid-2022. However, (as of writing in July 2022), it has not been released yet.
Crystal Pepsi could have been great. We folks who look back with rose-colored nostalgia glasses remember it with much more fondness than it probably deserves. To some of us, it just didn’t taste as good as the caramel-colored original. To others, it tasted too much like regular Pepsi. Whatever the reasons, perhaps it just couldn’t live up to the massive public relations hype.
The same hype we all remember fondly that makes us long for a return of Crystal Pepsi to store shelves today.