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Thoughts of new Coke and the variety it brought about [Commentary]

No one really cares about new Coke anymore.

Probably not that many of us even remember that there was a time when new Coke was a big deal. For those folks, really anyone younger than about 25 or 30, new Coke was a marketing disaster of epic proportions. Or maybe it was a covert, counterintuitive marketing success that made possible the soda situation of the modern era.

Way back in the dark ages of 1985, king cola was the flavor of choice. There were a few people who drank things like ginger ale, various lemon-lime things like Sprite and the lesser known Squirt, orange soda, grape soda and even cream soda. Root beer was (and kind of still is) its own thing. Diet soda was relatively new to the scene, with a particularly popular (Coca-Cola) brand going by the name Tab, which, of course, was cola flavored.

Cola was the flavor of choice, even as none of us knew then – nor do we focus much on it now – exactly what a cola is. Suffice it to say for purposes of this essay a cola is an odd looking tropical fruit.

By the time 1985 rolled around, Coca-Cola and Pepsi were the main big brands, though, as is the case now, you could get store brand cola for a lot cheaper. There were a few other name brands, notably RC Cola, but Coke and Pepsi were the big names. And that was pretty much it, until diet soda came into its own, then there was Coke, Diet Coke, Pepsi and Diet Pepsi.

Then the folks in Atlanta who make Coke decided the recipe needed to be changed. There was a massive marketing campaign, a lot of hype. As is typical when the flavor of something is changed, some people liked it, some didn't and some had no interest. A few folks liked the old – or at least claimed they liked it – so much they began hoarding cases of it in anticipation of it not being available anymore.

Shortly thereafter, the first fissure in the fizzy drink mass marketing monolith appeared: Coke decided to bring back the old recipe, which was sold under the name Coke Classic. So then there was Coke, Diet Coke, Coke Classic and, if memory serves, Diet Classic Coke. Within a few years, the fissure turned into a full-blown fracture. Add to the Coke list: vanilla coke, caffeine free Coke, caffeine free Diet Coke, Cherry Coke and the list continues to grow. Pepsi went pretty much the same route, adding a slew of incarnations of its Cola-based products.

In the midst of all this, new Coke would eventually disappear from the scene, and by the time 2009 rolled around and the classic designation was removed from the Coke Classic bottles and cans, it was noteworthy to the New York Times only insofar as it constituted something of a bookend to the new Coke marketing blunder (or stroke of genius) of 24 years earlier.

So no one cares about new Coke, the classic incarnation or any of the other sodas of the splintered market, and my suspicion is it's because those of us in the packaged beverage buying public are a good deal happier with the array of choices available these days. So many different kinds of sodas are on the market and so many new ones come and go, it would be difficult to start a conversation that begins "Have you tried the new [soda variety]?" Heck, it's possible you've tried it and liked it a lot, but I've never even heard of it.

For me, it's been a great development. Having spent a lot of time working in restaurants in my teens and early 20s, I'd sampled an awful lot of the kinds of soda on the market 20 to 30 years ago, and pretty much got my fill of it. Toward the end of my food-working career, I'd switched to seltzer water, which had plenty of fizz but no after taste and no calories. It's been my soft drink of choice ever since, though it hasn't always been as easy to find as it is now. A stroll down the soda aisle at the grocery store reveals an entire section devoted to seltzer and quinine water. These days, not only are there competing brands of seltzer, but also there are a range of flavors. There is, of course, seltzer classic, just bubbly water. Then there are the flavors lemon-lime, orange and, strangely, raspberry.

On the whole, I'd say I'm pleased with the way the soda situation has turned out. It's kind of like what's happened with ice cream. Way back in the day, there was chocolate and vanilla, with the occasional fruit flavor thrown in. Now if you can think of it, either Ben or Jerry or Baskin or Robbins or someone else already has thought of it and packaged it.

I think it's a good thing no one cares about new Coke because it reflects that there are so many beverage options any of us can choose the one that makes us happy and we can get on with talking about more important things. Or less important things.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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