Perspective: Color Me Thirsty

Kool-Aid's always boasted of a slew of flavors—but taste has never really been the point

Most shoppers have never heard of Edwin Perkins, nor the dubious assortment of potions and elixirs—including a purported smoking cure called Nix-O-Tine—that he sold via his mail-order company in Nebraska a century ago. Perkins never became the chemist he fancied himself, but he was a hell of a good marketer. In 1917, he introduced something called Fruit Smack, a flavored drink concentrate that—in order to save shipping charges—he reintroduced as a powder mix in 1927. The packets carried a new trade name, too: Kool-Aid.

Now’s a good time to bring up a bit of marketing wisdom that Perkins himself would have agreed with: Once you have a hit, you stick with it. In the case of Kool-Aid, that worked in the literal sense (Perkins eventually dropped all his other products and opened a Kool-Aid factory in Chicago) and in the advertising one. While Kool-Aid has always been an inexpensive drink with bemusing flavors, its core (read: kid) audience has always loved it for one reason: those crazy colors.

“These ads show incredible brand consistency,” observed Marcus Hewitt, chief creative officer of global design and innovation firm Dragon Rouge. “It’s consistently about color—and smiles.”

Yes, those too. Indeed, both visual cues work in tandem, even across the six decades that separate these two ads. When the ad at right ran in 1962, it was a full nine years after General Foods bought Kool-Aid. But while the CPG giant did introduce Kool-Aid Man (who would soon enough be bursting through brick walls yelling “Oh Yeah!” in TV spots), it was careful to put that smiley face with the apostrophe eyes on a clear pitcher so the drink colors shone right through.

Which is great—and also a little odd. After all, this is a food product we’re talking about here. Where’s the line about great taste, about tickling your taste buds? Hewitt’s take is that it’s not even necessary to go there. “Forget the flavor and the sweetness—they don’t even talk about that,” he said. “Because the color’s the thing that already sets the brand apart.”

Indeed, the use of color’s only been played up as the years have passed. Kool-Aid’s original lineup of six varieties (raspberry, grape, cherry, strawberry, orange and lemon-lime) has morphed steadily, the memorable additions including Black Cherry, Berry Blue and Pink Swimmingo. But you won’t see any mentions of fancy new flavors in this 2012 ad—just those varicolored tongues on very happy kids.

Which, as it turns out, was pretty much exactly what Edwin Perkins envisioned back in 1927.