Marketing The Failure Awards News

The Failure Awards for defunct branding | #12 Crystal Pepsi


By Andrew Eborn | president

October 31, 2017 | 10 min read

In this weekly series, Andrew Eborn shines a light on the products and services, brand extensions and campaigns that failed to take off and have as a result earned entry into the Octopus TV Failure Awards and a place in The Museum of Failure. Last week we looked at Google Glass, an invention ahead of its time. Today, it's the turn of another futuristic product still waiting for its moment. Meet Crystal Pepsi.

Crystal Pepsi

Crystal Pepsi / Mike Mozart/Flickr

Clearly crazy

According to Mintel, approximately 33,000 new consumer packaged-goods are introduced every month (Mintel Global New Products Database). Most of them fail.

Having successfully survived the 80s and put away our legwarmers, hair scrunchies, parachute pants and shoulder pads, the 90s began with a clear craze. Marketers were obsessed with purity – free from artificial colours.

Clarity was associated with purity and gave rise to a number of products stripped bare. Colour – or a lack of it – was recognised as a tool for visual persuasion.

The fad was encouraged by the continued promotion of Ivory soap.

"99 and 44/100% pure"

Introduced in 1879, Ivory soap from Proctor & Gamble was famous for its claimed purity and for floating in water. By 1895 P&G had adopted the slogan “99 and 44/100% pure" in reference to the claim that Ivory was purer than the Castile soap available. This was subsequently used by Willy Wonka when opening his factory. I’ve got a Golden Ticket etc.

ivory soap

From soap to soda and petrol to pop, companies have clamoured to capitalise on the clear craze down the years.

Amoco launched its clear gasoline, Amoco Ultimate. Coors Brewing Company produced Zima, marketed as a clear alcoholic alternative to beer. Colman Hutchinson, my fellow director in Boxatricks the format creation company set up with the creators of Who Wants To Be a Millionaire, has already put Zima in the frame for an Octopus TV Failure Award. Zima did not cut the mustard for Colman. It tasted “awful” Colman points out.


Pepsi’s poptastic history has been punctuated by failures way before Kendall Jenner even tried to bring peace to the world through Pepsi.

Let’s be clear - "You've never seen a taste like this"

In 1992 PepsiCo launched Crystal Pepsi as a caffeine-free clear alternative to normal colas. Devoid of artificial ingredients including the colouring that gives Pepsi its caramel hue, Crystal Pepsi was marketed as being healthier than the regular cola. It may not, in fact, have been as heathy as people thought with 250 calories and a 69 grams of sugar in a 20-ounce bottle.

Following a successful test in markets like Denver and Sacramento, Crystal Pepsi was launched throughout the US supported by massive marketing campaign. During the Super Bowl on 31st January 1993 we were told why Right Now the choice is clear..

Cola wars

Initially, Crystal Pepsi enjoyed sparkling sales success, gaining a whole percent point of US soft drink sales – worth around US$470m – in its first year. Sales soon fizzled out due to a number of factors not least the activities of Pepsi’s arch rival.

The ongoing battle between Pepsi and Coke is legendary... watch out for the computer game coming soon.

On 14 December 1992, Coca-Cola launched its own clear product, Tab Clear, with a deliciously bizarre TV ad.

In the 2011 book Killing Giants: 10 Strategies To Topple the Goliath in Your Industry Sergio Zyman, Coca-Cola's chief marketing officer who introduced Diet Coke in 1982, is reported as saying that Tab Clear was a "suicidal kamikaze" effort to create an unpopular beverage that was positioned as a counterpart to Crystal Pepsi in order to "kill both in the process".

The Tab brand rather than Coke was used for this "born to die" strategy. Tab Clear was labelled as "sugar-free" to confuse consumers into thinking Crystal Pepsi had no sugar and Tab Clear was marketed as if it were "medicinal". Sergio Zyman pointed out that "Pepsi spent an enormous amount of money on the brand and, regardless, we killed it".

Zyman went on to explain: “This is like a cola, but it doesn’t have any colour. It has all this great taste. And we said, ‘No, Crystal Pepsi is actually a diet drink.’ Even though it wasn’t. Because Tab had the attributes of diet, which was its demise. That was its problem. It was perceived to be a medicinal drink. Within three or five months, Tab Clear was dead. And so was Crystal Pepsi.”

Not so yummy

David Novak, chief executive of Yum Brands (KFC, Taco Bell, Pizza Hut), is often cited as being the "genius behind the notorious flop Crystal Pepsi".

Novak had a phenomenal career, leaving a legacy of 41,000 restaurants across 125 countries and a market capitalisation of about $33bn when he retired as chairman.

In an interview in 2007, Novak said that Crystal Pepsi was “the best idea I ever had, and the worst executed. 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 you blow it, you don’t get a chance to resurrect it.”

Novak recognised it was “a tremendous learning experience”.

"The bottlers told me, 'David, it's a great idea, and we think we can make it great, but it needs to taste more like Pepsi,'" Novak said. "And I didn't want to hear it. I was rolling the thing out nationally and I didn't listen to them."

As the novelty clear craze faded, Pepsi Crystal ceased distribution.

Crystal craze maze

The crystal craze gave rise to some superb spoofs.

From Saturday Night Live’s Crystal Gravy to the product that never was from Octopus TV Failure Awards other nominee, Crystal Guinness.

Shortly after Crystal Pepsi vanished, Pepsi populated shelves with a citrus soda called Crystal and in 1995, 7 Up – also owned by PepsiCo – introduced 7 Up Ice Cola. Just like Crystal Pepsi though, both of these drinks failed and were quickly and quietly withdrawn.

Nostalgia ain’t what it used to be

Crystal Pepsi has made a number of returns including limited re-releases in US in 2016 and 2017.

“We have a lot of fans and they're really enthusiastic and they've been asking for Crystal to come back for a long time," Linda Lagos, marketing director for the Pepsi brand, told CNN.

As Vogue pointed out: “ A monumental PR fail, Crystal Pepsi was widely derided at the time. (What was so wrong with normal, non-clear Pepsi in the first place?).“

Absence does make the heart grow fonder, however, as Vogue goes on to acknowledge: These days, the beverage is considered to be something of an ’90s icon, a quintessential symbol of the decade. Hearts have mellowed on Crystal Pepsi with the passage of time."

Retailing for $1.79, the brief re-release was the “cheapest taste of nostalgia you’re likely to ever get”.

This throwback was celebrated in the summer of 2017 with free concerts at baseball stadiums across the US featuring artists like Busta Rhymes at Yankee Stadium in New York, Sugar Ray's Mark McGrath at Chase Field in Phoenix, AZ and Salt-N-Pepa at Marlins Park in Miami.

With Pepsi-tinted glasses, Chad Stubbs, vice president, marketing, Pepsi Trademark suggests: "Crystal Pepsi has always been a fan favourite and fans continue to ask for it time after time. From the 90s through today Pepsi has been a brand very much connected to music and baseball. We're excited to see this special tour come to life and to celebrate Crystal Pepsi's last return."


Crystal Pepsi is still selling on eBay where you can pay upwards of $8 a pop for the pop or $20 with a fanny pack. One seller is even offering an original bottle at $8,000.

The Beast – throwback throw up

If you are tempted to buy a bottle of the original Crystal Pepsi from 1992 don’t drink it! L.A. Beast did with predictable results ….

Putting “u” into flavor

Crystal Pepsi continues to enjoy its clear presence in Pepsi’s history and is often cited as a reminder whenever brands ignore history and dabble in introducing new and bizarre flavours. As Lauren Cohen, marketing director at Pepsi, points out: "We have a rich history of introducing flavours in our cola business,"

You’re fired!

On 22 May 2017, Pepsi introduced a cinnamon flavoured cola called Pepsi Fire. Even before its launch the Twittersphere exploded with derision, drawing comparisons to Crystal Pepsi.

Why did Crystal Pepsi fail to fizz?

As I pointed out when looking at another Octopus TV Failure Awards nominee, Colgate Lasagna, new products need to be consistent with core brand values and customer perceptions and expectations.

Consumers don’t like to be confused.

The Crystal Pepsi bottle said cola but it did not look like a cola. Consumers were confused and without a clear explanation for the deviation from expectations rejected the new product. Tab Clear helped fuel the confusion making everything far from clear.

Bad taste

When the creator himself admits the product does not taste good you know you’re in trouble!

The Octopus TV Failure Awards/TOFA

Trends can be tricky. Curiosity may lead to short term spike in sales especially if backed by a massive campaign. If that product not only fails to deliver according to expectations but actually tastes bad as well failure is 99 4/100 % certain!

For all these reasons Crystal Pepsi is this week’s clear nomination for The Octopus TV Failure Awards.

Follow Andrew on Twitter @AndrewEborn and @OctopusTV.

Join Andrew next week for the results of The Octopus TV Failure Awards 2017. In addition to international recognition, the winners will receive a place in The Museum of Failure and the much valued TOFA.

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