The 2018 Crystal Pepsi Comeback
What Year Was 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. 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 a quarter-century later, the cry from Crystal Pepsi's 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)! It came back again for another, supposedly "final" go-round in the summer of 2018.
I was curious to try Crystal Pepsi again when it returned in 2016 because I had only the vaguest memories of what it tasted like. 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 Crystal Pepsi "goalposts" at each end. 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.
My Experience With Crystal Pepsi
...unfortunately, they didn't seem to spend as much time 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 flavor to it—if memory serves, it tasted like 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 those next few months at K-Mart, I witnessed the swift and terrible fall of Crystal Pepsi first hand.
One of my daily jobs at the store included re-stocking the four soda machines at the front entrance before we opened in the morning. To refill the machines, I would pull the product from a 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. Seriously, NO ONE was buying the stuff.
Though it came into the market with a bang, Crystal Pepsi definitely left with a whimper. One day the Pepsi people returned to our store, removed every trace of it from the shelves, and 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 I'm sure were paid handsomely for the use of "Right Now."
Like many famous failures, Crystal Pepsi's cult following grew in the years following its historic crash-and-burn. People paid outrageous sums for vintage, unopened bottles of it on eBay, then posted YouTube videos of themselves drinking them - sometimes with vomitous results. When the Coca-Cola company re-introduced their '90s Mountain Dew knockoff "Surge" to the marketplace in 2015 after an internet fan campaign, it surely did not go unnoticed by the head honchos at Pepsi. Combined with the fact that '90s nostalgia, in general, was hot in 2018, a Crystal Pepsi comeback must have seemed like a no-brainer.
Pepsi actually began testing the waters for this revival in late 2015, thanks to the tireless efforts of competitive eater and YouTube personality Kevin Strahle, aka "The L.A. Beast." A lifelong Crystal Pepsi fan, the Beast spearheaded a grassroots campaign to revive the brand, 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." In response to this fan demand, PepsiCo produced a limited batch of 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 they 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 the "new" Crystal Pepsi in the cooler at our local Walgreens store during the summer of '16. Naturally, 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, and by the time he got to the bottom of the bottle, he was declaring that he "loved" it. 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 could since it was supposed to be a limited release.
Revisiting Crystal Pepsi after 20-plus years was a strange feeling for me as well—after all, I never expected to see the 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 truly missed Crystal Pepsi while it was gone, but after a few sips I said, "Welcome back!"
So now that Crystal Pepsi has returned, what other failed '90s products deserve another shot? How about the Apple "Newton?" The McDonald's Arch Deluxe? WebTV? The XFL? Lay's potato chips with Olestra?
I've recently learned that the dreaded "clear alcohol beverage" Zima has already been revived...yuck, I think I'll pass on that one.
© 2016 Keith Abt