Aspartame-sweetened Diet Pepsi is not the only soda coming back. PepsiCo is also returning Crystal Pepsi to store shelves nationwide in a retro play. The 1990s-era clear soda will go on sale in 20-ounce bottles for a limited time at major retailers starting July 7 in Canada and Aug. 8 in the U.S., according to PepsiCo.
The soda briefly came back last year, but only via an online sweepstakes that lasted less than two days in December. This time, PepsiCo is making a bigger bet that consumers will scoop up the retro soda at stores across the country. Crystal Pepsi will be available for eight weeks.
The return of aspartame-sweetened Diet Pepsi that was announced this week was a necessity because the brand faced a backlash when it was reformulated last year. By contrast, Crystal's comeback is more about nostalgia. "Pepsi is all about pop culture and few things are as hot right now in pop culture as the 1990s," said Linda Lagos, director of marketing for brand Pepsi.
It's no surprise then that Crystal Pepsi's marketing campaign will lean heavily on 1990s culture.
On a special website, PepsiCo on July 7 will release a video game called "The Crystal Pepsi Trail." The game is Pepsi's take on the classic computer game "The Oregon Trail." The game, which was originally introduced in the 1970s as an educational tool, challenges players to take a covered-wagon journey westward and dodge pitfalls. "You have died of dysentery" remains a popular meme today. "The Oregon Trail" is "perhaps the oldest continuously available video game ever made," according to the World Video Game Hall of Fame, which inducted "Oregon Trail" this year.
Pepsi's version of the game is meant to connect with soda drinkers who might have played it in the 1990s. The goal is to "collect as many 90s items along the trail as you can with your dawgs," according to a developmental version of the game shared with Ad Age. References in the game include Furby, Tamagotchi, pagers and bucket hats. Marc Summers, former host of Nickelodeon's "Double Dare," makes a cameo in the game, which uses blocky, 1990s-era graphics. PepsiCo partnered with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, which owns the rights to "The Oregon Trail."
The game is "a very authentic way to talk to these guys that are so into the 1990s," Ms. Lagos said. "It was the original desktop time-suck before Facebook existed." The brand today will release the video below promoting the game.
While no TV ads are planned, Crystal Pepsi will be supported by what Ms. Lagos described as an "extensive paid media campaign on digital channels." In-store marketing will include push-button devices that play the 1990s-era song "Whoomp! (There It Is)." The lead agency on the campaign is Barbarian Group.
Crystal Pepsi has the same sweeter mix as regular Pepsi, including sugar. When it originally launched in the early 1990s it was backed by a $40 million ad budget. But the soda flopped as consumers grew disenchanted with clear sodas, according to a 1994 report in Ad Age.
Still, loyalists craved the soda and called for PepsiCo to bring it back. The marketer dipped its toe in the water in December, when it gave Crystal away via a sweepstakes on the Pepsi Pass app. Demand was strong as PepsiCo gave away 13,000 six-packs from noon on Dec. 10 to 11:49 p.m on Dec. 11, according to the company.
Bringing back old sodas has become a popular marketing ploy for marketers seeking to stoke interest on social media.
Coca-Cola in late 2014 brought back Surge, a 1990s-era citrus-flavored soda. It remains on shelves today. More recently, Coke brought back Hi-C Ecto-Cooler, whose return was timed with the reboot of the "Ghostbusters" movie franchise. PepsiCo last year announced the return of Mtn Dew
The return of Diet Pepsi's aspartame version also has a bit of a retro feel. It will be marketed as a "Classic Sweetener Blend" and is being packaged in what the brand described as light blue "retro" packaging, according to this week's announcement. It will be sold in limited quantities and the aspartame-free variety will remain the marketer's flagship diet cola. The about-face has called into question Pepsi's move to remove aspartame in the first place.
"PepsiCo's aspartame-free formula was a significant gamble with a large cash-generating brand that has so far not worked to plan," Beverage Digest reported this week. PepsiCo in a statement said: "Consumers want choice in diet colas, so we're refreshing our U.S. lineup to provide three options that meet differing needs and taste preferences."
But Pepsi is in a no-win situation with some consumers. Some loyalists craved the aspartame formula. But the sweetener has been beset with negative press in recent years over alleged health issues. (The American Cancer Society's position is that "for most people, no health problems have clearly been linked to aspartame use.")
The debate is playing out this week on Pepsi's Facebook page. Said one commenter: "Just found out you're putting aspartame back in diet Pepsi. Thanks a lot jerks! Just kill us all because your sales dropped." But another person said: "Thanks for bringing back Diet Pepsi Classic, I will drink it as soon as possible." One Facebook follower asked what was up with Crystal Pepsi. Now they have their answer.