A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

What's the difference between Diet Coke and Tab?

October 14, 1983

Dear Cecil:

I'd like to know the difference between Diet Coke and Tab. I always thought Tab was diet Coca-Cola. What are these guys trying to pull, anyway?

P.S.: I love your column. Better than the World Book.

Cecil replies:

Better than the World Book? That's like telling me I'm better in bed than Don Knotts. I'll thank you to come up with a slightly more pungent comparison, if you don't mind.

For practical purposes the difference between Tab and Diet Coke is that they come in different-colored cans. While the two products are somewhat different in taste (Diet Coke is marginally more palatable, to my way of thinking), both are basically low-calorie colas. They are also, needless to say, both made by the Coca-Cola company. We thus have the spectacle of a multi-billion-dollar corporation selling two virtually identical products that in effect compete with each other. A monumental blunder, you say? Not according to Coke. What we're dealing with here, you see, is the twilight science of marketing, where the normal rules of common sense are out the window. 

Permit me to explain. Most consumer products companies make use of a dubious practice known as "line extension," in which you take a successful brand and spin off innumerable variations--so that Budweiser, for example, begets Bud Light. The idea, naturally, is that you achieve instant recognition in the marketplace without having to go to the trouble of developing a new brand identity. Until recently, however, the Coca-Cola company refused to play the line-extension game, on the unassailable grounds that slapping the name "Coke" on some rank-tasting diet drink would only serve to muck up the brand's enviable image. That's why Coke decided to develop an entirely separate brand, Tab, when it got into the diet cola biz years ago.

Unfortunately, a new generation of managers took over at Coke and with the rashness of youth decided to abandon the noble policies of their forebears. Partly this was because archrival Pepsi was enjoying considerable success with its own line extensions, such as Diet Pepsi and Pepsi Free, and partly because Coke wanted to broaden the diet-beverage market, which up till then had been predominantly female. Women drank 60 percent of all diet soft drinks, and the percentage for Tab was even higher. In view of the fact that Tab advertising at the time consisted largely of shots of pretty girls in bikinis, that's not surprising, and one would have thought an obvious solution to the problem would have been to start putting some guys in the ads. But Coke execs evidently thought that was too easy.  Instead they spent $50 million to introduce a "new" product in July 1982 called Diet Coke, with the announced intention of attracting a 50-50 male-female consumer mix. The diff twixt Diet Coke and Tab? According to Advertising Age, "Diet Coke will be promoted as a great-tasting cola that happens to be low in calories, while Tab will continue to be positioned specifically as a low-cal product." A fine distinction, you may think, but that's what marketing is all about. 

By June of 1983, Coke honchos were crowing that Diet Coke had surpassed Tab to become the nation's top-selling diet soft drink--which means, if you think about it, that Coca-Cola spent 50 million bucks to shoot its own foot off. Nonetheless, to hear the boys in Atlanta tell it, the whole thing was a smashing success. Only 35 percent of Diet Coke sales were "cannibalized"--that is, consisted of customers who had switched from other Coke products. A 50 percent cannibalization rate had been expected. Moreover, research indicates that many women remain intensely loyal--one might even say addicted--to Tab's bizarre petrochemical taste. So it appears Coke will be selling both products for years to come.

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