In their endless search for an advantage in the century-old cola wars, Pepsi thought they had finally found the perfect concept to set them apart. In 2002, the company was prepared to unveil a berry-flavored soft drink meant to shake up the soda market and capture the ever-elusive teen palate.
Focus groups loved the taste, but they had one suggestion: Make it blue.
That's what led the company to roll out Pepsi Blue, the world’s first cola that could easily be mistaken for antifreeze or window cleaner. If early reactions were indicative of the product's appeal, Pepsi might be able to hold its own against Coca-Cola's newest offering, Vanilla Coke. It was one of Pepsi's biggest swings yet.
Like a carbonated Hatfield and McCoy rivalry, Pepsi had been locked in mortal combat with Coca-Cola since the early 20th century, and the companies had utilized a variety of strategies to secure more of the market. There was Crystal Pepsi, the clear beverage launched in 1992 that capitalized on America’s bizarre obsession with translucent consumer products. Then there were Pepsi Points, which one 21-year-old business major tried to use in order to wrangle a Harrier jet by taking a 1996 television advertisement literally. (It didn’t work.)
Pepsi's boldest move came that same year, when the company swapped out its familiar can design for an electric-blue update. The company paid Air France to have a Concorde painted blue as part of its $500 million marketing plan; supermodels Cindy Crawford and Claudia Schiffer and tennis star Andre Agassi appeared in commercials to draw attention to the new look.
Having exhausted the public’s appetite for clear drinks, Pepsi swag, and beautiful people, the company turned to one of its most popular products, Mountain Dew, for inspiration. In May 2001, they launched Mountain Dew Code Red, a cherry-flavored twist on the citrusy classic. It proved irresistible to consumers, ranking among the top five soft drinks sold in convenience stores within three months of its debut. Mr. Green—a tea under the company's SoBe banner—was another unexpected hit on shelves. Maybe a spin of the color wheel could point Pepsi toward its next marquee soda.
What followed was nine months of research in which the company went through more than 100 ideas. Executives believed the key was to appeal to the soft drink-imbibing teen market that had gotten caught up in the novelty of Code Red and seemed to crave something more irreverent from their beverages.
“Teens are in touch with what’s going on,” Pepsi spokesperson Dave DeCecco said in 2002. “After testing hundreds of ‘flavor extensions’ [the teens] told us, ‘It’s got to be berry ... make it berry. Make it blue.’”
Pepsi, perhaps not realizing focus group teens were probably not the best source of business advice, acted on their suggestions. Pepsi Blue was announced in May 2002, just one day before Coca-Cola introduced Vanilla Coke to its lineup. The company boasted that its “berry cola fusion” drink would help gain market ground thanks to some unconventional promotional strategies.
The most noteworthy part of the promotion was that Pepsi didn’t offer Pepsi Blue in giant 2-liter bottles like parents might bring home from the grocery store for the whole family. Instead, Pepsi Blue lived in single-serving-sized translucent bottles that teens could pluck from convenience store refrigerators. Pepsi believed kids would claim Pepsi Blue as their own by eliminating the parent factor.
To Dye For
The key to any beverage or food product is taste. On that front, Pepsi Blue seemed to disappoint. While the company openly acknowledged it was targeting 12- to 17-year-olds, older demographics were underwhelmed by the berry experiment.
“It’s disgusting,” proclaimed one unnamed friend of newspaper columnist Heather Larson Poyner. “The flavor is profoundly artificial. It has a weird tingle to it.”
“It tastes like a Crayola but not as good,” declared another.
Teens were more impressed. “That’s pretty good,” declared one juvenile solicited by The Gazette in Montreal. “It’s got a berry taste.”
“It’s refreshing and not too sweet,” said another.
“I would buy it,” said another subject.
Not many people agreed with that last sentiment. Having a product marketed to teens eliminates large swaths of the population, an oversight Pepsi eventually admitted to in 2003. Pepsi Blue sold 17 million cases in 2002 compared to 90 million cases of Vanilla Coke.
“Where Pepsi Blue didn’t live up to expectations was that it did great with teens and young adults but not in a big enough way across the broader spectrum,” Katie Lacey, Pepsi’s vice-president of marketing in North America, said. “I think one of the things we learned is that colas probably need to stay brown.”
As with many novelty products, Pepsi Blue was not long for the world. It largely disappeared in 2004, though some countries—like Indonesia—continued carrying it. It reappeared in the United States in 2021 as a promotional item for fans looking for some carbonated nostalgia. Where it was once a soda miss, Pepsi now declared it a “cult classic.”