Thursday, June 22, 2006

The Original Diet Coke

In 1963, the marketing guys at Coca-Cola had an interesting problem. Coke needed to respond to the Royal Crown Cola Company, who had come up with a fairly successful product known as Diet-Rite Cola. Today we take diet versions of cola for granted. But in the early 1960s, that was a revolutionary concept. All these bikini-clad girls were suddenly concerned about their figure, but they still wanted to drink their favorite beverage without guilt. Substituting cyclamate for sugar seemed like a good plan.

So the product development department at Coke got busy and developed what was essentially Coca-Cola without the sugar. All that was left was to put it in a bottle, stick it on the grocer’s shelves, and kick some Diet-Rite butt with a 300-pound gorilla marketing plan.

Watiaminnit, said the Suits. What are they going to call this stuff? They can’t just call it (gasp) “Diet Coke”. After all, they had spent millions of dollars protecting and preserving the honored, hallowed, cherished Coca-Cola brand. To dilute it by putting the word “diet” in front of it would be — well, it would be heresy! (Today, we would call it “brand extension” — think “Honey Nut Cheerios” — but that was a foreign concept at the time.)

So they turned to the market research department. Come up with a brand new name for this product. Some short, snappy, memorable. And do it quick! We can’t afford to have Diet-Rite eat one more fraction of a percent of our market share.

(Meanwhile, the execs at Pepsi were watching all this with a combination of amusement and blissful ignorance. It would be a couple of years before “Diet Pepsi” showed up on the market — with no apparent concern about diluting a trademarked name that had been playing second fiddle to Coke for years.)

The marketers at Coca-Cola huddled in their conference rooms in Atlanta, shuttering and shivering at the thought that they might make a marketing blunder. This was too important of a job for mere mortals. They must call upon the gods. The gods of ibm.

At the time, the ibm 1401 was a relatively new workhorse. It was the size of an average living room and had been introduced as a “business” computer, as opposed to a scientific computer. It was used to maintain customer records at banks and actuary tables at insurance companies. It was a 6-bit machine that contained a maximum 16Kb of data in its core memory. (For perspective, a typical two-page Word document is about 20Kb in size. Yes, folks, this computer could just about hold this entire article in memory.)

The folks in the it department were eager to find creative uses for their new toy. So they were overjoyed when the marketing department asked for their help. Could they use their brand new computer to generate a list of all possible four-letter word combinations?

The geeks put their slide rulers to work and their pencils to paper. Did they realize that would generate a list of 456,976 words to chose from? Back to the marketers. Hmmmm... Okay how about a list of four-letter words that contain only one vowel? Back to the slide rulers. Okay, that would be a list of only 192,000 words.

So the computer went to work. Disks whirred, tapes spun, lights dimmed. Green-bar paper spewed from high-speed printers. Long hours, late into the night.

Finally, the list was delivered. Marketing poured all over it, eliminating unpronounceable and potentially offensive words. Brows sweated. Pizza was consumed. Tensions rose.

Finally, they emerged with the winner. The new product was going to be named...


The creative guys got their hands on it. Okay, that could work because they could use the double-entendre of keeping “tabs” on the calories that are consumed. But the extra “B” was kinda in the way. A logo was invented with distinctive capitalization: “TaB”. Yeah, that’s it. Genius!

The rest, as they say, is history.

The geeks were left scratching their heads. Hey, we thought they wanted a four-letter word. If they had asked for a list of three-letter words — gee, that would have generated only (putting the slide-ruler to work again) 17,576 potential words to pick from. Why can’t anybody in the marketing department get their requirements established before they ask us to do all that work?

The ibm 1401 computer is now legendary with computer history buffs. Today, you probably have more computing power in your wristwatch than the machine that named Tab. In fact, doing the research for this article, I wrote a macro in Excel that duplicated the effort. It took me about three minutes to write and 3.5 seconds for my computer to execute.

But this represented one of the first successful joint ventures between a marketing department and a computer department and is thus worthy of historical note.

Of course, 40 years later, it still doesn’t do what marketing initially asks for. And marketing still can’t write user requirements that they can live with through the end of the project.

Some things never change.

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