In the quest for capitalistic supremacy, companies go to great lengths for the “next big thing,” only to fail magnificently. For every Big Mac, there’s an Arch Deluxe. For every bottle of Heinz Ketchup, there’s a Heinz EZ Squirt Purple Ketchup. But no product has been a bigger disappointment, nor a bigger blight on our society, than Crystal Pepsi.
What is Crystal Pepsi?
The 1990s were marked by a health craze that left many companies scrambling to get their “healthy” alternative onto the shelves. Sparkling water and seltzer became popular alternatives to soda, and brands like Snapple claimed to be “made from the best stuff on Earth.” The ad wizards at PepsiCo, feeling personally attacked by this health trend, decided they had to make their own “healthy” soda.
Their solution: remove the caramel coloring from their usual Pepsi and replace it with modified corn starch. This resulted in a clear soda that was less sweet and had slightly fewer calories—134 in a 12oz bottle of Crystal Pepsi versus regular Pepsi’s 154. The people in charge were banking on some psychological study that a food’s color mentally corresponds to a food’s flavor. So, a light-looking beverage should have a light flavor. Thank goodness scientists spent time figuring that one out.
Why did Crystal Pepsi fail?
I had the distinct displeasure of drinking Crystal Pepsi way back when it first came out. And I know the exact reason why it failed: It tastes like absolute garbage. It exists in this weird middle ground of not-quite-soda but also still-not-water, like you dropped some sugar into seltzer but it tastes extremely fake. David C. Novak, the person credited with the idea for Crystal Pepsi, even said, “It would have been nice if I made sure the product tasted good.” There was just no chance for this poorly thought out product.
However, there was also a bit of a Beverage War at the time that tanked Crystal Pepsi’s sales. Coca-Cola owned Tab soda. And, within months of Crystal Pepsi’s release, Coca-Cola released Tab Clear, a sugar-free, clear soda that, according to marketing executives of the time, was made specifically as an analogue product to simultaneously torpedo them both. And, since they used the Tab brand name and not Coca-Cola, Coke didn’t receive any of the negative backlash that Crystal Pepsi did. But Coca-Cola is not blameless; we all remember the New Coke fiasco that had people nearly protesting in the streets.
Crystal Pepsi launched at the end of 1992. Within a year, it was discontinued, and our long, national Pepsi nightmare ended (until they released Pepsi Blue ten years later).
Do we have to worry about Crystal Pepsi making a comeback?
God, I hope not. Pepsi still owns a trademark for the name “Pepsi Clear,” so that will always be hanging over our collective heads. And, while we were still reeling from the Covid pandemic, this 2022 “Crystal Pepsi is Back” headline sent a shiver down my spine; thankfully, it was only part of a contest and not an actual product relaunch. But it just goes to show that Crystal Pepsi is always lurking in the shadows, ready to strike when we least expect it. So, keep an eye on the product page at Big Lots. You never know when you might be able to add to cart…