Ham-flavored Diet Coke

If you’ve been paying attention to the marketing messages coming your way in the last month or so, you already know that Diet Coke recently rolled out a host of new flavors: Twisted Mango, Ginger Lime, Feisty Cherry and Blood Orange. In the 35 or so years since the drink’s introduction, it has never significantly messed with its flavor or even its look. So why start now?

Call it a sea change. Call it a paradigm shift. Use any word that business book authors invent to make good old hyperbole sound more even more dramatic, and use it to describe the beverage industry. It looks a lot different than it did just a decade ago.

Diet Coke came along to save us all from Tab, which tasted like burning tires flavored with saccharine and Fresca, which tasted like 7-up with the aftertaste of dish soap. Anything would taste better than those two chemical cocktails, so it was met with great rejoicing. Diet Coke ruled the world of “healthy beverages” for decades before energy drinks ruined everything for everybody. Once drinks like Red Bull came along and screamed “You want chemicals? We’ll give you chemicals!” at us, everybody started to look a little harder at the ingredient lists in the drinks they were grabbing at the gas station.

Then somebody, somewhere had a revolutionary idea: drinking water.

I did a straw poll in one of the college courses I teach the other day, and virtually 100% of the students in the room had their own water bottle with them, which they had filled up at home. Nobody had stopped by the Diet Coke machine to grab a can before coming to class. Millennials, it would seem, are done with soda.

Coca-Cola, Diet Coke’s parent company, did not get caught unawares. Did you know that not only do they own the Powerade brand of sports drinks, they also own Dasani water empire and even Fairlife milk drinks? They saw the clear water tidal wave coming a long time ago and diversified their assets. But Diet Coke is just too big of a brand to give up on. So they also took a hard look at those millennials (who, in turn, were looking at their phones) and decided to throw a Hail Mary of flavors at them.

It was worth a shot, though I wonder if they didn’t accidentally confuse “millennials” with “hipsters.”

Is “blood orange” really a flavor that the masses were clamoring for? It seems a little like the recipe team sort of ran out of ideas. “I know we’ve never really eaten one, but they always look cool in the grocery store next to the real fruit.” What’s next? Potato-flavored Diet Coke? Ham-flavored Diet Coke?

It’s too early to tell if the taste of ginger is going to save Diet Coke from extinction, but I have a hunch that it won’t. We’ll see in ten years or so if Diet Coke ends up beside Tab in the annals of soda history, too unnatural to evolve. Either way, don’t worry about the folks in Atlanta. Coca-Cola has been ahead of the marketing curve for more than a century, and one little bump in the road won’t slow them down much.