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This year, an estimated one million people will visit the World of Coca-Cola, the company-funded museum whose 100,000 square feet of exhibits, memorabilia and interactive installations consistently ranks among Atlanta’s most popular tourist attractions. While the bank vault that contains Coke’s purportedly secret recipe is probably the most dramatic offering, a perennial fan favorite hides up on the second level, just past the elevators. It’s called Taste It! and, as the name suggests, it’s a taproom where visitors can sample Coca-Cola products from all over the world. There’s Sprite Cucumber from Romania, for instance, and Korean favorite Minute Maid Joy Apple Lychee.
Oh, and there’s Tab.
Last week on a visit to Atlanta, members of Tab’s largest Facebook fan group were delighted to find the beverage still streaming from the spigots. The sight made them a little wistful, too, because the World of Coca-Cola is, paradoxically enough, the only place left in the world where consumers can sip Tab. On Oct. 16, 2020, Coca-Cola announced that it would cease production of the storied cola in the magenta can, the first major diet soft drink to hit the American market back in 1963.
To say that Tab fans were disappointed would be an understatement. Over the past three years, Tab drinkers have not only scoured store shelves to stock up on the last cans, but they also organized into advocacy groups on Facebook, with Save Tab Soda being the most visible.
Two weeks ago, following repeated appeals to headquarters via written correspondence, the group’s members decided to kick things up a notch.
“We wanted to do our first in-person event, and it coincided with the 60th anniversary of Tab,” Adam Burbach, Save Tab’s president, told Adweek. “Our plan was to go to lunch and then bring a collection of cards and stories that we’ve been collecting from the Tab group and walk them over to Coca-Cola [headquarters.]” As things turned out, Coca-Cola’s PR department decided to save the group the trip by sending a representative down to meet them.
Hyped up consumers appearing at a brand’s headquarters is nothing new, of course, but the case of Tab fans and Coca-Cola is noteworthy. Despite their grief over having lost their favorite drink, Tab fans aren’t angry with Coke—they’d just like their Tab back. (For their part, Coke’s PR reps who came out were, the group said, “very nice” to them as well.) And while the visit was a demonstration of sorts, it was designed to entertain as well as inform. The former involved Save Tab members dressed in Tab attire—even Tab costumes—as they made their way from the airport. The latter took the form of a bag of letters they brought from across the country imploring Coke to resurrect Tab.
While the odds seem long that Tab will appear on store shelves again, the movement nevertheless raises marketing questions worth pondering well outside the beverage realm. Should a legacy company feel any responsibility toward a brand that, while faded, nonetheless helped it to prosper? Does the hard-nosed wisdom of a financial decision always outweigh the value of keeping fans happy? And even if a product has outlived its usefulness, does goodwill argue for keeping it around—even in a limited run?
When scale isn’t everything
While Tab met its demise as part of what Coke termed “global portfolio refresh,” it was more like portfolio attrition. Coke announced that efforts would center on “category-leading brands with the greatest potential for growth and scale.”
Asked to comment for this story about the future for Tab, Coca-Cola sent Adweek a statement: “We focus on brands that help accelerate our growth strategy, which includes prioritizing those with the potential for greater scale.”
It’s difficult to fault a brand for wanting to pool its resources behind those parts of its portfolio that promise the most growth. Coke is, after all, a public company beholden to Wall Street’s demands, and Tab made up a mere 1% of sales in its final years of production. And though Tab—sweetened with saccharine—was groundbreaking for its day, it also helped create the diet-cola category that eventually eclipsed it with aspartame-sweetened beverages—Diet Coke foremost among them.
At the same time, Tab drinkers contend that Coke owes them a solid for years of faithful patronage. “Our mothers and grandmothers put that drink on the map for you,” as one put it.
In addition, branding history has long demonstrated that even products that generate little at the register can still be valuable parts of a company portfolio. HP’s super-cheap printers, Costco’s rotisserie chicken and even Sony’s PlayStation 5 have been routinely sold at break-even or at-loss rates, simply because they’re good at drawing customers in who’ll spend money on accessories or other items.
Trish Priest, Save Tab’s secretary, also argues that the potential pool of Tab customers could well be larger than Coke realizes.
“Coca-Cola knows their business,” she concedes, “but we know the customer. We’ve done a lot of surveys we’ve included in various communications to both Coca-Cola and the bottlers to help them understand that there’s a large demand for Tab that I don’t think they’re aware of.”
Burbach added that, in his view, the decline of Tab had more to do with Coke’s ignoring it as a product than a lack of interest on the part of the public. “We think there’s an awful lot of people out there that would buy it again,” he said. Based on Save Tab’s own research conducted via social media, Tab devotees reported they would not only pay a higher price for the cola if it returned, 98% would recommend it to their friends.
The lure of nostalgia
The idea that America could be brimming with would-be Tab drinkers feels a little fantastical, but it may not be as far-fetched as it sounds. When it comes to legacy products, there’s a standing presumption that their devotees are solely people of a certain age who were around when those products debuted.
But consumption patterns paint a broader picture.
For example, Urban Outfitters has made a small industry out of selling long-forgotten stuff that its core twentysomething customers are too young to remember the first time around, including vinyl albums, Chia pets and lava lamps. Earlier this month, it even began selling refurbished circa 2004 iPods for $350.
And let us not forget Barbie. Statistia figures from July showed that nearly half—48%—of Americans who had seen or planned to see the Warner Bros. summer blockbuster Barbie were between 18 and 29 years old—which means the youngest fan was born nearly a half century after Barbie’s 1959 debut.
Tucked in among the bushel of letters collected by Save Tab are ones by young drinkers. Read one: “Hi. I am 25… I know lots of people 20 something into 30s that love Tab.”
Jack Mackinnon is the senior director of cultural insights for consumer research firm Collage Group. To his mind, while it’s easy to deprecate millennials (and now, Gen-Z) as hipsters, the fact is that they’ve demonstrated that authenticity sells. Younger consumers, he said, have shown a “love of heritage brands going back to a time when things were made for a purpose, built to last, and there was a story behind the craft of it. Tab falls right in the heart of that.”
Some limited-time hype
But the most compelling reason Save Tab can probably make for saving Tab is probably a marketing one.
“There is little to no chance they would bring back Tab simply for the sake of goodwill—that’s a slippery and unprofitable slope,” said Duane Stanford, editor and publisher of Beverage Digest. At the same time, however, the sales stream generated by new or returning fans plus the PR boost that comes from a well-managed relaunch have driven many companies to give it a try.
“If Coke were to ever bring back Tab,” Stanford continued, “the most likely avenue would be through a nostalgic, limited time offering at retail, or exclusively online. They did it with Surge, for example. And Pepsi has done it with past brands like Crystal Pepsi and Pepsi Blue.”
Indeed they do. In Season 3 of Rick and Morty, when brainiac scientist Rick Sanchez longed for McDonald’s Szechuan dipping sauce—gone from menu boards since 1998—McDonald’s returned the condiment to restaurants for one day. The response was so great that police had to break up a crowd outside one location in Wellington, Fla, that chanted: “We want sauce!”
The Golden Arches has played a similar hand for years with the McRib sandwich, which has had at least four “farewell tours.” The advantages of such enforced scarcity aren’t lost on headquarters. “Bringing it back every so often adds to the excitement,” McDonald’s senior marketing director Marta Fearon told the Associated Press in 2011.
There also seems to be a knock-on effect in the general population when a huge corporation treats its superfans kindly. Were Coke to bring back Tab, it “could certainly tap into nostalgia as well as highlight their responsiveness to their loyal consumers,” said Marisa Mulvihill, partner and head of brand and activation for consultancy Prophet.
“Frito-Lay has done this quite well over the last few years, leaning into their customers to select flavors for Lays and even using user-generated content for Doritos ads,” Mulvihill added. “These marketing tactics signal that they listen and trust their consumers and they are part of the same community.”
And it might well for Coke, too—if it decided on producing even a limited run of Tab. But until then, fans can still enjoy a cup of the stuff at the World of Coke—as much as they like, in fact, after they pay the general admission fee of $19.00.