RIP Tab (1963 - 2020): Branding Lessons to Learn from a Product's Demise

Reasons Why TaB Was Discontinued - Marketing Lessons
Scott Kalapos on Nov 6, 2020

Sadly, there's yet more bad news to report in 2020. Tab, a long-time player and big name in the diet soda sector, is leaving this world at the age of 57. Such news would have been nearly incomprehensible at one point in time. This is a soft drink that was wildly successful for many years, starting with its release by the Coca-Cola corporation in 1963.

How did an item that once cornered a market and had such a good reputation ultimately die out? The answer is a complex one and presents many important lessons when it comes to marketing a product, adapting to the times, not competing internally, and much more. It's time to get into the life and times of Tab and point out some key takeaways along the way. We hope to provide some helpful insight into branding and product marketing evolution before it's done.

The Beginning:

Tab first hit grocery store shelves and soda machines in the year 1963. At the time, only one other diet cola beverage had any kind of presence in America or foreign markets. This was the relatively obscure Diet Rite. This brand still exists today, and is more or less the diet version of RC Cola. Never heavily marketed yet still successful enough to stick around, this soda was the inspiration for Tab. In the early days, Coca-Cola did a pretty good job of understanding what was needed to make this product successful. A catchy name, appealing packaging, and effective advertising campaigns were all big pieces of the plan. 

When trying to come up with a name, Coca-Cola decided it wanted one that consisted of one syllable, four letters, and one vowel. Thousands of options were run through a computer, with Tabb emerging victorious. As Tab was already a word people knew and used, it was decided that the four letter concept would be dropped. Additionally, as this was a diet drink, marketers suggested it could be used to help consumers keep tabs, so to speak, on their weight and fitness.

Now that Tab had a name, it needed winning packaging and on-point consumer targeting. For most of its run, Tab was primarily marketed toward women. More specifically, it was marketed toward women who were dieting or carefully counting calories. Due to this, it was soon decided that Tab should have a pink can and in advertisements, often be shown poured into a glass with the classic "hourglass figure" shape. Several promotional Tab glasses were sold in this form. 

For most of the 60s, 70s, and early 80s, things went well. Tab was well-received, its advertisements successful, and its competition minimal. Appearing in grocery stores, soda machines, restaurants, and soda fountains throughout the world, it looked like there would be no stopping this tasty beverage. Unfortunately, things would slowly crumble for the brand. Coca-Cola made many branding strategy gaffes with Tab in the years to follow. The first of many would come in 1982, when Coca-Cola introduced a now-famous product that became a direct competitor. This brings us to our first lesson. First though, let's take a look at this Red Barn (another defunct entity) commercial for 1974, in which Tab is shown being served on tap.

1. Avoid product cannibalization wherever possible

It's hard to imagine a diet cola market that doesn't include Diet Coke. However, for 19 years, that was the world we lived in. Diet Coke made use of a slightly different formula with a bit of a different taste. With the success of Tab, Coca-Cola figured it could launch another brand into the diet soda game. This time, it would capitalize on name recognition, but also market to a broader audience. The iconic silver can design would be far more gender-neutral, as would advertising campaigns.

While Diet Coke was an instant success, it severely cut into the sales of Tab, practically overnight. Before long, finding Tab instead of Diet Coke on tap in a restaurant became a rarity. More and more, Coca-Cola focused its advertising efforts on Diet Coke, featuring many memorable jingles and ads containing famous celebrities. Here's an example from 1990, which stars Elton John and Paula Abdul.

2. Values change with time, and so must branding strategies

With the success of Diet Coke, it was decided that Tab would be kept around as more of a niche product. The original demographic of women seeking a low-calorie yet satisfying soda would become an even stronger focus. While this worked out initially, the tactics employed couldn't last forever. Before we judge Coca-Cola too harshly, it's important to remember that life was much different when Tab was launched than it is today. Societal attitudes have changed on many issues.

Two areas in which the general public thinks much differently today than it did in the 1960s-1980s are body image issues and the portrayal of women in media. Decades ago, a commercial like this one, which featured Tab's "Beautiful People" campaign wouldn't have caused many people to bat an eye. Today, it's hard to imagine such a commercial being approved by ad agencies and reaching the airwaves.

3. If you're going to expand a brand into a product line, ensure the expansion makes sense

On more than a few occasions, attempts were made to stretch Tab out into a brand that went beyond the scope of diet cola. About a decade into its lifespan, Tab was still hugely popular. Coca-Cola tried to milk this for all it was worth by expanding Tab into a variety of different flavors. Root beer, lemon-lime, strawberry, orange, cherry, and ginger ale versions of Tab were quickly launched and quickly bit the dust. A decision was made to move on from this and to just let Tab be Tab. This became more difficult to abide by throughout the 80s and 90s as Diet Coke continued to hack away at Tab's market share and its traditional advertising message and tactics started to meet with some disapproval. 

Knowing something needed to be done to revive the brand, Coca-Cola tried introducing a caffeine-free version of Tab in the 1980s. In 1984, Pepsi-Free, a caffeine-free version of Pepsi met with a good deal of initial success. Coca-Cola decided to follow suit, but also introduced Diet Coke sans caffeine. One can easily guess what happened as a result.

Approximately 10 years later, Tab tried to become part of the clear beverage campaign, joining products such as Crystal Pepsi and Zima beer. Crystal Tab was not heavily advertised and relatively few people ever learned of its existence. This was another product that died off quickly. One of the final and most surprising Tab product variants was Tab energy drink. Tasting, looking, and in just in general being nothing like Tab, this idea also didn't make it very far. For those who don't remember Tab Clear, here's a commercial from 1993 that you likely never saw.

4. People want to play it safe when it comes to serious illnesses

Another of the many daggers which sunk into Tab over the course of the years was a result of the sweetening agents it employed. Through most of its run, Tab was sweetened with saccharin and aspartame. Health concerns arose around both of these chemicals, with many studies suggesting that they may be linked to the development of cancer when consumed regularly. Headaches, anxiety, concentration difficulties, seizures, and mood instability were also results that were pinned on these chemicals by many in the scientific community. 

While much of this was the product of theory and unproven studies, the public got wind of these allegations and formed long-lasting and thoroughly negative opinions about aspartame over time. As a result, many products containing aspartame were legally required to prominently state the fact on their packaging.

Despite the fact that extensive studies debunked many of these worries and the FDA going on to assert its safety, the damage had been done. This was yet another nail in Tab's coffin. Even if a soda tastes great, a lot of people are going to avoid it if they think it has the potential to cause severe harm to their well-being. To be fair, many scientific debates about aspartame and other artificial sweeteners continue to take place, as can be seen in the video below.

5. Even when a product falters, it's not time to stop advertising

As things grew worse for Tab, the amount of advertisements shrunk. Coca-Cola knew it could make a better return on investment by allocating more advertising dollars toward Diet Coke. This caused Tab to slip further back into the shadows, causing many to forget about it. In fact, several people held the belief that Tab had already been discontinued years ago, as they couldn't remember the last time they saw any kind of an advertisement for it.

Even when some of the newer versions mentioned earlier in this article were introduced, the scope of advertising was limited. On the plus side, Tab had built a loyal base of avid and devoted fans over the years. It also didn't disappear from pop culture, occasionally making punch-line type appearances in movies and TV shows. One example most will remember is when Homer Simpson, while working from home (back when it was a rare thing), tried to order a glass of Tab by pushing the tab button on his keyboard.

6. Desperate times call for desperate measures

Ultimately, some claim it was COVID-19 that finally did Tab in. Budgets have been running tightly for everyone and supply chains have disrupted for nearly every company in the consumer products industry. This has resulted in many companies streamlining their offerings, focusing on top-sellers, and limiting advertising to items that are sure to sell in the short term and keep things afloat.

Along with Tab, Coca-Cola has also given the axe to Sprite Lymonade and Coca-Cola Life since the start of the pandemic. The company officially states that it was already planning to remove these items due to poor performance. However, one can't help but wonder if they may have had some prayer at reconsideration if not for the effects of COVID-19.

7. Build an iconic brand and it will always be remembered

As we've already stated, Tab has a dedicated fan base that is beyond dismayed at the loss of their favorite soda. We submit the fond farewell provided by one Tabaholic (a self-applied label within the community of Tab fandom) following this paragraph as evidence. Still, even before the discontinuation of Tab, t-shirts bearing the logo, classic hourglass Tab items, and other Tab promotional products were easy to find online and frequently encountered in person.

Per the discussion about advertising cessation, even the people thought Tab had already been discontinued still remembered the actual product, despite not having had a sip in decades. That's some significant staying power and it shows that Tab did at least apply one of these lessons correctly. We'll close things out by showing you the video mentioned at the beginning of this section.

What's your take on Tab? Send us an email and let us know! Do you have a brand you'd like to display on a t-shirt or piece of promotional drinkware? If so, contact us and we'll get to work on creating the perfect product to immortalize your company and its products.

More Blog Posts