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From the beginning, Tab’s story has been one of perseverance. The brand survived initial low sales, the artificial sweetener scares of the 1960s and 1970s, lukewarm enthusiasm for the product at the corporate level and intermittent consumer availability to become – for a brief period – the most popular diet soda in America. Then, of course, Diet Coke came along.
While it never regained its lofty status as the top diet soda, loyal Tab fans kept the brand alive.
Meant for diabetics, downed by dieters
While some might think Tab was the first diet soda, that honour actually belongs to a beverage called No-Cal, which was developed by beverage industry pioneer Hyman Kirsch in 1952. Kirsch wanted to create a soda for diabetics and people with cardiovascular problems, so he used cyclamate, which was discovered in 1937 by a graduate student working at a University of Illinois chemistry lab after he licked some of the substance and found that it tasted sweet. About 30 times sweeter than sugar, cyclamate isn’t metabolised, making it ideal for people who need to avoid sugar.
After a 57-year run, The Coca-Cola Company's first 'diet soda' brand Tab will be discontinued globally come 2021...
20 Oct 2020
Soda giants caught flat-footed
Coca-Cola and Pepsi, finding themselves behind the ball, scrambled to come up with their own diet soda offerings.
Coca-Cola’s foray into the diet cola market – dubbed Project Alpha – was an ambitious one. It wanted to come up with a soda that tasted good, had a proper mouthfeel – sugar adds not only sweetness but also viscosity – and was attractive to women, the presumptive market. It also needed a catchy name.
For the name, Coke executives had one directive: Even though its taste was engineered to mimic Coke’s, it couldn’t be called Diet Coke. Because most early diet sodas didn’t taste that great, strategists warned against associating their brands with drinks that might taint their tremendous value.
So an early IBM mainframe computer generated more than 600 candidates with the parameters that the name be three or four letters and not offensive in any foreign language.
Tabb, which was eventually shortened to Tab, eventually won the battle of market testing. Stylized as “TaB,” it was introduced to the world in a series of ads with the tagline “How can just one calorie taste so good?”
For a company that ordinarily has such excellent marketing instincts, Coca-Cola wasn’t sure how to fit Tab into its portfolio. Bottlers resisted the product, fearing it would undercut their profitable sugar-based sodas. By the end of its first year, it had only 10% of the diet soda market, an unusual predicament for a brand backed by the No. 1 soda company in the world.
Later in the 1960s, Coca-Cola introduced the grapefruit-flavoured diet soda Fresca, which was a much bigger hit with consumers and further sidelined Tab.
Emerging from the sweetener scares
Artificial sweeteners were riding high in the 1960s as Americans wanted to enjoy their sweets without paying the caloric price. But danger was lurking in the form of the Delany Clause in the Food Additives Amendment of 1958, which prohibits food additives that have been found to cause cancer.
In 1969, the Food and Drug Administration banned the sweetener cyclamate after lab studies indicated that large doses of the sweetener led to bladder cancer in animals. While Tab contained two artificial sweeteners – saccharin and cyclamate – cyclamate was the more important of the two. Saccharin is 300 to 400 times sweeter than sugar, but in high concentrations it gives products a bitter, metallic aftertaste. However, when it’s combined with cyclamate, the bitterness goes away.
After the cyclamate ban, Tab was forced to reformulate and ended up deciding to use saccharine as its primary sweetener. Then in a second blow, follow-up research on potential health problems associated with artificial sweeteners focused on saccharin, leading the FDA to require warning labels on products using the sweetener.
After Pepsi entered the diet cola market with Patio, it rebranded the product as “Diet Pepsi” within a year. Consumers embraced the new drink and a string of celebrity endorsers only enhanced its popularity.
This lesson was lost on Coca-Cola, which didn’t bring a diet drink using the Coca-Cola name onto the market until 1982, when it introduced Diet Coke.
Yet the drink managed to retain some passionate devotees, even as rumours of its impending doom circulated on and off over the years. A Tab shortage in 2018 caused self-described Tab-aholics to stockpile their favourite beverage, and petitions to save the drink were circulated and sent to the company.
It won’t be long until the only cans left will be in the basements of Tab-aholics.
The Conversation Africa The Conversation Africa is an independent source of news and views from the academic and research community. Its aim is to promote better understanding of current affairs and complex issues, and allow for a better quality of public discourse and conversation. Go to: https://theconversation.com/africa
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