This morning I learned that the Coca-Cola Company has “canned” it’s famed TaB brand. No, it’s not packaging it in a can. It’s fired! Worse yet, the Company is putting it to perpetual rest. It will no longer be available to consumers.
According to a WSJ journalist report, Jennifer Maloney, in her 16 Jan 2020 article, the “Coca-Cola Company is Canning TaB,” the Company is trimming more than half of its 500 or so brands, and TaB is one of its most notable cuts. This pruning of its garden overrun with beverage brands is attributed to the coronavirus—the resultant needs to reduce costs and support for poor performers and restore focus on large growing brands.
TaB sales, once the leading diet soft drink, shrunk dramatically. According to Wikipedia, the Coca-Cola Company reported that in 2011 it shipped 3-million cases of TaB versus 885-million diet Coke cases. Diet Coke outsold TaB by 295-cases to 1! At a market share well below 1%, TAB doesn’t justify support in the humongous $145-billion retail soft drink category. In the Coca-Cola DSD (direct-to-store delivery) system, a brand needs 2% or more to warrant space in the delivery truck. (At least it did during my tenure at Coca-Cola USA and, I expect, continues to hold true.)
TaB debuted in 1963 and became a pop-culture icon during the 1970s and 80s. It was positioned at women and dubbed “The Beautiful Drink for Beautiful People.” Those of us familiar with its advertising remember the hourglass mnemonic that visualized the consumer benefit accruing from a diet complemented with a 1-calorie (versus a sugar soft drink)—a trim waist and hourglass figure.
TaB had a taste that was polarizing due to its use of a combination of cyclamates and saccharin to sweeten the beverage. I did not like the taste of TaB. I preferred and drank brand Coke. However, enough consumers (mainly women) became acclimated to its taste and preferred it to other diet colas and, even, sugar colas. This fanatically loyal band of consumers was dubbed “TaBaholics.” In fact, many TaBaholics objected to the taste of TaB after its reformulation with NutraSweet.
The obituary for TaB will record 2020 as the year of its demise. However, the Company dealt it a death blow as early as 1982-83. I was running marketing for all Coca-Cola USA soft drink brands at the time. The Company kept TaB, like many people in today’s healthcare system, on life support which merely prolonged its death. Actually, it was to appease or satisfy (your choice) the TaBaholics.
Let me explain to the best of my memory what occurred some 37 – 38 years ago. We introduced diet Coke—note the lower case “d” as the focus was on taste—to grow the diet segment, bring in men, and create “strategic stability.” The first two reasons are well understood. However, strategic stability may be a new concept for many marketers. Namely, households were purchasing Coke and Diet Pepsi. PepsiCo jointly promoted Pepsi and Diet Pepsi at retail. It’s a short step away from buying Diet Pepsi when it’s on promotion to also taking home Pepsi instead of Coke. We wanted to insulate ourselves against competitive inroads from Brand Pepsi promotions, capitalize on Coke users’ taste for Coca-Cola, and leverage our promotions to disrupt Pepsi. The solution: diet Coke.
No, let’s not jump to conclusions, albeit a rational one. Diet Coke did not kill TaB! Consumer research indicated that TaB users preferred the taste of TaB to diet Coke. Indeed, research also indicated that there would be some cannibalization (proportionate to its share of the market); however, it was not only at acceptable limits but having two brands would lead to the Coca-Cola Company dominating the diet cola segment. Instead, it was a poor decision that led Coca-Cola Bottlers (independent of the Coca-Cola Company) to abandon promoting TaB in favor of diet Coke. (Excuse my use of the lower case “d” when referring to diet Coke, but, once again, its focus of sale was the taste, not “diet.” At the time, the practice of “dieting” was attributed to women, not men, and those desiring to lose or maintain weight.)
Returning to 1982-83, the Bottler organizations contributed 50% to the national media budget for our brands. As we prepared our marketing plans, we proposed to the GM (General Manager) of CCUSA (Coca-Cola USA)—who, by the way, epitomized a TaBaholic as he consumed several (i.e., 7 – 9!) each and every day—that we increase the media budget for TaB. Despite his affection for TaB, he objected that the Bottler organization would not support it with increased media. We acknowledged that we were well aware of that eventuality and expected it would be the case. However, our rationale was to send a clear signal that we were continuing to support TaB. We explained that if we were to request a reduced level of media support for TaB that it would signal to Bottlers that we were abandoning TaB to throw our attention on diet Coke.
Unfortunately, our GM disagreed with our rationale. Our media budget was reduced significantly—despite our recommendation to the contrary. The Bottlers interpreted it—as we anticipated—as a clear signal that CCUSA was abandoning TaB in favor of diet Coke. Consequently, they rushed out the door to distance themselves from a brand with a solid franchise of loyal followers and was among the fastest-growing brands in our portfolio. No, diet Coke did not kill TaB any more than Coke Zero (Sugar) has killed Diet Coke (upper case “D” to recognize the brand’s current status). (Together, they dominate the market share for diet cola soft drinks.) It is a credit to the Coca-Cola Company that they kept TaB on life support for so many years to satisfy the TaBaholics.
Take heed of the maxim, “actions speak louder than words.” Despite giving lip service to supporting TaB, the action to reduce media support sounded the death knell. Beware of the signals that your company, brand, or, for that matter, you are sending that adverse impact your business.
TaB is dead? Long live TaB (perhaps in another, smaller Bottling system or warehouse delivery system). Otherwise, rest in peace.
Make your marketing matter (more)! Read AVOIDING CRITICAL MARKETING ERRORS: How to Go from Dumb to Smart Marketing. Learn more here: http://bdn-intl.com/avoiding-critical-marketing-errors
Stay SAFE and be well.
Peace and best wishes,