How do you reach a generation that abhors advertising, is fiercely individualistic, and hates nothing more than the idea of “selling out?” Well, Coca-Cola marketing execs attempted to address that question—and OK Soda, the Generation X-oriented answer they came up with, lived a remarkable, if short, life.
Diet Coke. Fruitopia. New Coke. The people at Coca-Cola threw a lot of things at the wall in the 80s and 90s. Some were failures and some were successes. And, in fact, one man played a noteworthy part in the development of all three of these brands: Sergio Zyman. He stopped working with Coca-Cola after the New Coke debacle in the 80s, but was brought back on, now as Chief of Marketing in 1993. The company gave him plenty of space to get creative—and that was exactly what he did.
The idea came from a single word, which, according to a market survey, was the only word more universally recognizable than “Coke” itself: “OK.” Not only did it transcend language, its lack of bombast or enthusiasm seemed tailor-made for a media-savvy members of Gen X. “OK” soda made an aloof offer to an apathy-stricken audience.
In contrast to its subdued profile, Coca-Cola threw all their weight behind the marketing of OK Soda. The campaign took an idiosyncratic tone, with ads that lambasted the actual taste of the drink, calling it “carbonated tree sap.” The cans were designed by outsider cartoonists like Daniel Clowes and Charles Burns. Clowes, who couldn’t resist Coca-Cola’s generous offer at a time when he was a struggling artist, included a face that resembled Charles Manson in his designs.
Though the cans promised a “unique fruity soda,” some also featured borderline nihilistic “manifestos” like “OK Soda says, ‘Don't be fooled into thinking there has to be a reason for everything’” and “What's the point of OK? Well, what's the point of anything?” Additional offbeat marketing tactics included a 1-800 line and chain letters.
OK Soda’s primary slogan was: “Things are going to be OK." Spoiler alert: They weren’t. OK Soda was exactly what its target audience detested. Its attempt at subversion was seen for what it was: yet another high-priced and ultimately cynical marketing campaign. Coca-Cola tested it in select markets, but sales didn’t live up to expectations.
It didn’t help that people seemed to find the flavor off-putting and described it as akin to mixing all the flavors at a soda fountain together. Despite the hype and Coca-Cola’s best efforts, the company ended up taking OK Soda off the market seven months after its initial limited release.