What Happened To Crystal Pepsi?

The beverage industry is always looking to entice consumers with the newest and freshest options and drive the conversation in popular culture. The more that people are talking about how weird or different a new drink is, the more likely it is that people will be convinced to put down their regular choice of refreshment and try something they've never had before. These sorts of zeitgeist moments are particularly important to PepsiCo, which is consistently overshadowed and outsold by the more popular Coca-Cola Company. 

Per Yahoo! Finance, both Pepsi and Coca-Cola have been around since the 1890s but only started directly targeting and publicly competing with one another in the 1980s when the "Cola Wars" began in earnest via massive advertising and marketing efforts on both sides. As of 2019, PepsiCo had a 24.1 percent share in the United States soft drink market while the Coca-Cola Company controlled 43.7 percent. Surprisingly, one of PepsiCo's most infamous historical failures has gone on to become a cult classic among soda fans — Crystal Pepsi, the butt of so many jokes in the 1990s, continues to reappear in periodic limited-edition releases 30 years after its original release. 

Crystal Pepsi was part of the 1990s clear craze

When PepsiCo introduced Crystal Pepsi in 1992, it became part of the "clear craze," an onslaught of normally opaque or colorful products — including soda, dish soap, and mouthwash — that were suddenly available in transparent versions. As reported by Newsweek in 1993, the clear products were intended to catch the "green wave" trend and convey a sense of purity and environmentalism. Gillette spokeswoman Michele Szynal said of the fad, "Clear represents the biggest trend in consumer products since the 'lite' products craze of the '80s." 

Over two dozen see-through items made their way to the marketplace between 1992 and 1993, and Crystal Pepsi did so with much fanfare. Pepsi officials reported that they had spent over 15 months and surveyed 5,000 consumers in the course of developing Crystal Pepsi, and while it couldn't claim to be an "all-natural drink," it did note its "all-natural flavors" in small print. 

America couldn't escape the Crystal Pepsi hype

Per Thrillist, Crystal Pepsi was introduced nationwide via a commercial that premiered during the Super Bowl on January 31, 1993 (available on YouTube). It featured the band Van Halen's inescapable early '90s anthem "Right Now," which features lyrics about living for the moment and not fearing change. The song had already received a lot of attention for a music video that included large subtitles cleverly commenting on current events and social issues in addition to more trivial fun facts. The Crystal Pepsi commercial featured similar subtitles along with an astronaut, a rhinoceros, and a smiling woman happily knocking back the trendy, translucent beverage. 

The Super Bowl spot was part of a $40 million advertising campaign, and PepsiCo's efforts initially paid off, with six-packs of Crystal Pepsi — which sold for $1.50 apiece — bringing in sales of $474 million by March 1993. It had been just nine months since Pepsi marketing executive David Novak had conceptualized the soda and pitched it to CEO Roger Enrico, an unusually short amount of time for a product to go from an idea to the shelf. 

'I still think it's the best idea I ever had, and the worst executed'

In 2007, Fast Company interviewed David Novak, who was at that time CEO of Yum Brands — the holdings of which included KFC, Pizza Hut, and Taco Bell — and was about to release his autobiography "The Education of an Accidental CEO: Lessons from the Trailer Park to the Corner Office." The topic of Crystal Pepsi came up, and Novak was philosophical about his brainchild's enormous hype and disappointing failure, telling the reporter, "It was a tremendous learning experience. I still think it's the best idea I ever had, and the worst executed." 

He went on to wryly note, "It would have been nice if I'd made sure the product tasted good. Once you have a great idea and you blow it, you don't get a chance to resurrect it." Thrillist spoke with Surinder Kumar, the food scientist who worked with Novak on Crystal Pepsi, who explained, "Colas are brown for a good reason." The color keeps sunlight from spoiling the drink; clear beverages like Sprite are packaged in green bottles for sun protection as well as aesthetics. 

Tab Clear was deployed to kill off Crystal Pepsi

In addition to its design flaws, Crystal Pepsi was also the victim of a "kamikaze" marketing ploy deployed by the Coca-Cola Company. As detailed by Better Marketing, Coke marketing chief Sergio Zyman responded to the Crystal Pepsi hype by launching a competing transparent cola, Tab Clear, not because he wanted to sell more clear soda than Pepsi, but because he expected that introducing it to the public would ultimately tank both products. He was right. 

In his book "Killing Giants: 10 Strategies to Topple the Goliath in Your Industry," Stephen Denny spoke with Zyman about the decision, who explained that there was confusion among consumers because Crystal Pepsi was marketed as a "natural" alternative to other colas but wasn't actually a diet drink. "What we did is we said we would launch a Tab Clear product and position it right next to Crystal Pepsi, and we'd kill both in the process," Zyman said. 

Coca-Cola was able to imply that Crystal Pepsi was actually a diet drink (even though it wasn't) by providing a seemingly weaker, copycat version with Tab Clear, which, per Zyman, "had the attributes of diet, which was its demise ... It was perceived to be a medicinal drink. Within three or five months, Tab Clear was dead. And so was Crystal Pepsi." 

Crystal Pepsi's surprising triumphant return

Nostalgia works in mysterious ways. Although the original Crystal Pepsi was discontinued less than a year after its introduction via giant Super Bowl ad, years later, its unavailability made it all the more desirable, and consumers wanted it to come back again. In 2015, two separate online campaigns called for the return of Crystal Pepsi, one of which was spearheaded by competitive eater Kevin Strahle, also known as L.A. Beast. Per the HuffPost, Strahle started a trending Twitter hashtag, made several YouTube videos (including one in which he drank a decades-old bottle of the soda), and inspired 34,000 people to sign an online petition demanding that PepsiCo bring back Crystal Pepsi. PepsiCo paid attention and held a sweepstake in which they gave away 13,000 six-packs (via CNBC).

Clearly (pun intended) enjoying the public's newfound thirst for the soda, PepsiCo has gone on to bring Crystal Pepsi back several times, including sponsoring the Crystal Pepsi Throwback Tour in the summer of 2017. Per People, Busta Rhymes, Mark McGrath of Sugar Ray, and Salt-N-Pepa performed free concerts at baseball stadiums around the United States. In January 2022, PepsiCo tweeted that it would be giving away Crystal Pepsi to 300 people in honor of the soda's 30th anniversary. Apparently, there's a time and place for everything, and Crystal Pepsi's time is, surprisingly, right now.