OK Soda and the Paradox of Consumer Preferences

OK Soda and the Paradox of Consumer Preferences

“OK was way ahead of its time, design-wise,” wrote Christian Erickson, pinning this image of a can of OK Soda. True enough—maybe, in fact, too far ahead of its time.

OK Soda was manufactured by the Coca-Cola Company from 1993 to 1995. The drink was Coke’s attempt to reach the new generations: Generation X at its Reality Bites peak and Generation Y at its first-grade-convenience-store consumer dawning. The beverage name was inspired by the fact that “Coke” was the second most-recognized word in the world, the first one being “OK.”

The mastermind of OK Soda was Coke chief of marketing Sergio Zyman, newly rehired after having been canned (so to speak) following the New Coke debacle of 1985. Believing that Gen X consumers hated brands and advertising, Zyman made OK an anti-brand—from its generic name to its absurdist taglines (“What’s the point of OK? Well, what’s the point of anything?”) and its incorporation of varied artwork by alt cartoonists such as Daniel Clowes rather than a fixed design. Even the small print at the bottom of the can seemed written for Holden Caulfield: A CARBONATED “BEVERAGE.”

None of this, of course, actually worked: the brand flopped. Why? There are rarely simple answers to questions like that, and brand-launch failures often hinge on logistical issues (distribution, price, etc.) that are hidden to consumers. You have to wonder, though, whether an anti-marketing campaign will ever be a winning strategy for selling soda.

Look at the soda cooler at your local gas station, and you’re not going to see a lot of avant-garde artwork. You’ll see a host of familiar brands and a wash of imagery conveying feelings like relaxation (iced tea), nutrition (Vitamin Water), and energy (Red Bull). Among those brands will be Coke. Coke works. As Zyman learned in 1985, people don’t like their Coke messed with—even when blind taste tests clearly demonstrate that a different taste would be preferable to most people. Coke is a brand like the American flag: it’s iconic, and you can use it ironically or not, as you prefer. You don’t need a special anti-Coke marketed to you, and especially not one that looks like a book instead of a soda. (Where an OK-style design might work better is on a bottle of microbrew.)

And yet, sometimes new brands do break out. Pepsi happened, obviously, and in recent years there’s been the remarkable success of Red Bull—which not only opened up a whole new “energy drink” market that had previously been a tiny sector housing Jolt Cola, but actually defined what “energy” tastes like. Industry experts have been mystified at how the weirdly unbalanced taste of Red Bull is now the only taste consumers want in their energy drinks—if it doesn’t taste kind of like Red Bull, it doesn’t taste like “energy.”

I’m not a marketing expert, but I face my own little marketing decision every time I sit down to write a blog post. Once you’ve been blogging for long enough you have a rough idea of what people will respond to: I could stick squarely within The Tangential’s “brand” and write a post like “Pros and Cons of the Avengers I’d Like to Fuck” or whatever. That would almost certainly get more likes and reblogs than this post will. It’s nice to be appreciated, but (a) that gets boring and (b) if you don’t keep moving forward, eventually you’ll become irrelevant. Even Coke needs to stay on its toes, and The Tangential is no Coke.

My co-blogger Becky does work in marketing (in fact, Christian is her boss), and she often writes about marketing on her company’s blog. The overall message of the blog is that the era of marketing as forcing-a-brand-down-consumers’-throats is over, and that a new era is beginning in which brands, to succeed, have to form meaningful relationships with their consumers.

On the surface, the OK Soda campaign would seem to be in line with this recommendation: it did everything but try to push its brand down consumers’ throats. Its anti-campaign, though, was still one-sided: Coke presented Gen X consumers with Coke’s idea of what they might want instead of engaging them as consumers. It’s almost impossible to know what “engaging consumers” might have looked like in the pre-Internet era, but OK Soda wasn’t it.

Am I engaging you as a community with this post? Maybe, maybe not—but I’m not trying to sell you The Tangential™, I’m just sharing my thoughts. What are your thoughts? Let me guess: “I really wish you’d just written about the pros and cons of the Avengers you’d like to fuck.”

Jay Gabler