Packaged Beverages: The Comeback Kids

Three old beverages make a new splash

Nostalgia is a powerful force. It can unite people, incite strong emotions and even resurrect old products from the dead.

Beverage brands come and go from c-store cold vaults, but few re-emerge in the marketplace. This is largely because not many have cult followings convincing enough to demand their drink and substantial enough to support production and distribution.

“We’ve seen brands with strong retro appeal in the past,” says Sarah Theodore, senior global food and drink analyst for Chicago-based Mintel. “The challenge is maintaining the brand once the nostalgia has worn off. To do that, the brand must not only remind consumers of what they missed or originally liked about the product, but also fi t with today’s consumer sensibilities.”

And yet three favorite beverages of yore are reemerging in the marketplace, driven back into the limelight by avid fans, social media and the ebb and flow of beverage trends.

Surge Ahead

Fashion from the ’90s is making a comeback, and a can of Surge is the perfect accessory. The brash, bold soda brand “embodies the feel of the ’90s,” says Sheree Thrasher, communications manager for Coca-Cola North America, Atlanta.

And now, after 12 years off the market, Surge is back.

“Our decision to give Surge an encore was made, in part, based on the Surge Movement’s creative and persistent efforts over the last few years,” Thrasher says, referring to one of the most vocal Surge fan groups, led by millennials Evan Carr, Sean Sheridan and Matt Winans.

The group, which has gained more than 223,000 Facebook followers, is known for pulling impressive stunts designed to demand the attention of Coca-Cola executives. They’ve bombarded customer-service hotlines with requests for Surge, sent handwritten holiday cards to Coke execs, made YouTube commercials and, in 2013, raised nearly $4,000 to place an ad on a billboard in Atlanta, just a half-mile from Coke headquarters. “Dear Coke,” it said, “we couldn’t buy Surge, so we bought this billboard instead.”

“Evan, Matt and Sean manage the [Facebook] page and have been instrumental in helping us engage and connect with fans,” Thrasher says. Coca-Cola rewarded them with invites to a Surge-themed party when the relaunch was announced.

In September 2014, a limited supply of Surge’s original formula in 12-packs of 16-ounce cans were sold exclusively online through Amazon, marking the first time Coke offered exclusive e-commerce distribution of one of its products. In a second phase of the relaunch, underway now, Coke is conducting a limited in-market test in the Southeast. But nationwide fans can still get their fix via Amazon.

Such a strategy allows Coke to monitor sales and inventory easily without adding to the load of its distribution network. “Commercializing a product is hard and may not always be a good fit,” says Thrasher. “Launching online enables us to make a unique product like Surge available to fans through a network that is easily accessible.”

It’s the emergence of e-commerce that makes retro-product relaunches interesting to Mintel’s Theodore.

“Retail shelf and cooler space is precious, and new brands are under a lot of pressure to perform,” she says. “The online channel has the potential to be more forgiving and let brands build more slowly, or even stay small with a fan base that wouldn’t necessarily offer enough volume to justify a launch through other retail channels.”

Sell It, Seltzer!

Original New York Seltzer (ONYS) is also taking advantage of the e-commerce safety net to minimize risk in its relaunch. It’s starting first with online sales, with a goal of expanding to retailers in 20 states by August 2015. Also like Surge, ONYS has a retro appeal, reemerging in its original siphon-style glass bottles and colorful 1980s labels. The sparkling, fruit-flavored water inside is, as it once was, perfectly clear. ONYS touts no artificial dyes or preservatives—an attribute that attracted fans 30 years ago—along with one big change that reflects a hot consumer topic: It now contains natural cane sugar.

“Today’s consumers are far more sugar-conscious than they were in the ’80s and ’90s,” Theodore says. “They gravitate to products that are more natural, with fewer additives. And they like specialty and craft products that have a great ‘backstory.’ All of those things will play a part in determining whether the drinks stay popular after their initial relaunch, and whether they gain an audience among consumers who aren’t old enough to remember the products from the first time around.”

Ryan Marsh, the new president of Original New York Seltzer, is keenly aware of the importance of capturing the hearts of new fans as well as old. ONYS was the only soda brand his parents would allow him to drink as he was growing up in the ’80s. With more parents looking for natural ingredients today, “the timing is perfect for ONYS to resonate here and worldwide,” he says.

The company’s original owners, father and son team Alan and Randy Miller, have moved on to other things, but Marsh tries to honor their independent spirit. He was inspired by the way the original product was launched against big beverage companies as something distinctly different. He believes ONYS was ahead of its time. He preaches the underdog story of ONYS through grass-roots marketing, a combination of an active social media presence and eager-to-engage leadership.

“We get great insights, comments, even flavor suggestions,” he says. “That just wasn’t possible before. It’s really something.”

Clearly Coming Back

Original New York Seltzer’s rebirth is happening at the perfect time.

“Between 2012 and 2014, sales of sparkling waters in the [United States] grew almost 58%,” says Theodore. “Many consumers are turning to these products as a healthier alternative to traditional carbonated soft drinks.”

But it’s not the only retired brand taking advantage of the growth of sparkling waters. Nineties brand Clearly Canadian is also back to compete in the category.

In a new variation on the e-commerce launch, Clearly Canadian hosted a massive crowd-funding campaign, hoping to raise $50,000 in 15 days through fans preordering cases.

After just one day, the company raised a staggering $46,000.

The familiar sleek glass bottles filled with spring water, pure cane sugar, natural flavoring and citric acid were ordered in 30,000 cases by fewer than 12,000 backers in every state in America, every province in Canada and 36 additional countries. Four of the most popular flavors—Mountain Blackberry, Country Raspberry, Orchard Peach and Wild Cherry—will begin appearing on retail shelves in August.

The initial response to these relaunches is impressive, but Theodore offers a quick reality check. “The vocal online community can inspire a brand relaunch, which was the case with Surge, and even help fund the return of a product, which is happening with Clearly Canadian,” she says. “But that audience still might not be big enough for success through traditional ‘brick-and-mortar’ retail.”

Clearly Canadian has plans to release a zero-calorie canned line in 2016 to appeal to other common consumer concerns. But when the excitement wears off, constant tweaking and vigilant strategizing may be necessary to keep these fan favorites afloat.

Crystal Revival?

Jenny Zegler, global food and drink analyst for Chicago-based Mintel, spoke to Convenience Store Products about the rumors that PepsiCo is planning a relaunch of retro brand Crystal Pepsi.

“The reports came in June 2015 after an avid Crystal Pepsi fan Tweeted a letter from Pepsi that stated that fans of the clear brand, ‘would like what’s in store.’ The company has confirmed the letter but is not sharing many other details,” says Zegler.

“The plans to resurrect Crystal Pepsi are similar to the social media push that inspired Coca-Cola’s relaunch of Surge, suggesting that former fans are the immediate target for Crystal Pepsi’s revival.”