The Crystal Pepsi Comeback
What Year Is It?
Remember Crystal Pepsi? The unique ultra-clear cola drink was expected to take the world by storm when it was launched in 1993 ... but it never caught on with the soda-buying public, in spite of a massive advertising blitz that included a Super Bowl commercial and the use of Van Halen's hit single "Right Now" as the brand's official theme song. In the end, Crystal Pepsi turned out to be the biggest soda-biz failure since the "New Coke" debacle of 1985, and it disappeared from the marketplace less than a year after it was introduced.
...but nearly a quarter century later, the cry from Crystal Pepsi's small but dedicated cult following became too much for Pepsi to ignore. In response to thousands of Tweets, e-mails, YouTube videos and Facebook messages, Crystal Pepsi returned to North American store shelves for a limited time in the summer of 2016 and its comeback was met with much rejoicing (and hoarding)!
Crystal Pepsi "Right Now" commercial (1992)
I had to admit I was curious to try Crystal Pepsi again, because I have only the vaguest memories of what it tasted like during its first go-round. I do vividly remember the massive advertising push that accompanied its roll-out in early 1993, though. I was working at a K-Mart store in suburban New Jersey at the time and therefore I was right in the middle of Crystal Pepsi's national "launch," which coincided with Super Bowl XXVII. To mark the occasion, a team of Pepsi representatives even came to our store and created a massive football-themed display in our main aisle built out of 12-packs of their products, with a Crystal Pepsi "goal post" at one end. (I have a photo of that carbonated monstrosity somewhere in my archives, but unfortunately I was unable to find it to include it with this article.) Thanks to such absurdly huge store displays, as well as tons of radio and TV commercials and print ads, PepsiCo's brand awareness team worked overtime to let America know that Crystal Pepsi was coming, and that we should be ready for the Next Big Thing in carbonated beverages.
...unfortunately, they didn't seem to spend as much time taste-testing the actual product. When I finally did get to try Crystal Pepsi, I would say I was "underwhelmed." Though it was described as a "clear cola," I don't recall it having much of a cola taste - if memory serves, the flavor reminded me of fizzy sugar water. It was OK, I guess, but I wouldn't have walked across the street for one unless it was a hot day and they were giving them out for free.
Crystal Pepsi apparently sold fairly well at first due to curiosity seekers trying it for the first time (like me), but it soon became obvious that there weren't many repeat customers. Over the next few months, I witnessed first hand the swift and terrible fall of Crystal Pepsi. One of my daily jobs at K-Mart included re-stocking the four soda machines at the front entrance of our store before we opened in the morning. To refill the machines, I would pull product from a huge pallet of soda 12-packs that was located in the back stock room. Over time the supplies of the other sodas would dwindle and I'd tell my manager, "You need to order more Coke," "You need to order more Mountain Dew," etc., etc. -- but not once did I ever have to tell him "Order more Crystal Pepsi," because the supply in the stock room never moved. I NEVER had to re-load the Crystal Pepsi slots in either of our two Pepsi machines. NO ONE was buying the stuff.
Though it came into the market with a bang, Crystal Pepsi definitely left with a whimper. One day in late 1993, the Pepsi representatives returned to our store and proceeded to remove every trace of it from the shelves. Once they left, Crystal Pepsi was never spoken of again, except as a punch line. I joked that the only ones who profited from it were the members of Van Halen, who were surely paid handsomely for the use of "Right Now."
Like many famous failures, Crystal Pepsi developed a cult following in the years following its historic crash-and-burn. YouTube is full of videos of people who've paid outrageous sums for vintage unopened bottles of Crystal Pepsi on eBay, and then proceed to drink them on camera - sometimes with vomitous results. When the Coca-Cola company re-introduced their '90s Mountain Dew knockoff "Surge" to the marketplace in 2015 in response to an internet fan campaign, it surely did not go unnoticed by the head honchos at Pepsi. Combine that with the fact that '90s nostalgia in general is hot right now, and a Crystal Pepsi comeback must have seemed like a no-brainer from a marketing standpoint.
Pepsi actually began testing the waters for this revival in late 2015, thanks mostly to the tireless efforts of one man - competitive eater and YouTube personality Kevin Strahle, aka "The L.A. Beast." A lifelong Crystal Pepsi fan, the Beast began a grassroots movement to revive the brand in 2015, starting with a petition on change.org which soon garnered more than 30,000 supporters. The Beast and his followers sent Pepsi thousands of e-mails, Tweets, and Facebook messages demanding Crystal Pepsi's return, put up billboards around Los Angeles and even recorded "The Crystal Pepsi Song," which contains the lyric "All I want is a Crystal Pepsi to share with you... I haven't been the same since '92." The music video for the song has racked up more than half a million views since it was first posted on YouTube in August of 2015. In response to this massive fan demand, PepsiCo produced a limited batch of 13,000 Crystal Pepsi six-packs and gave them out as prizes in a November 2015 sweepstakes to promote the Pepsi mobile app. The response was so positive that Pepsi announced the next limited run of Crystal Pepsi would hit stores in August 2016 and would only be around for eight weeks.
"The Crystal Pepsi Song"
The Crystal Pepsi has Landed!
My 9 year old son and I found "new" Crystal Pepsi in the cooler of our local Walgreens drug store during the summer of '16 and our curiosity was too much to bear, so I bought us each a bottle. After his first few swigs, my son couldn't quite express how he felt about it. I believe his exact words were "Dad, it tastes... weird!" However, it finally clicked with him after a few more gulps, because by the time he got to the bottom of the bottle he was declaring that he "loved" it and he wanted me to buy him another one. I told him that we'd pick up some more next time we went to the store, and advised him to enjoy it while he can, since (as of this writing anyway) it's destined to be a limited release.
Revisiting Crystal Pepsi after 20+ years was a strange feeling for me as well - after all, I never expected to see this stuff again! It went down nicely, was pretty damn tasty and was extremely refreshing on a hot summer's afternoon. I can't say I ever really missed Crystal Pepsi while it was gone, but now I'm saying "Welcome back!!"
So now that we've got Crystal Pepsi back again, what other failed '90s products deserve another shot at the brass ring? How about the Apple "Newton?" The McDonald's Arch Deluxe? WebTV? The XFL? Lay's potato chips with Olestra? Any of those would be fine by me, as long as nobody in beverage land gets any ideas about reviving Zima (yuck!)....
© 2016 Keith Abt