In The Believer in February, 2014, Michael Schulman wrote about one of the most dramatic and memorable failures in American branding: Coca-Cola’s OK Soda. Marketed to Gen X’ers in 1994, the OK Soda brand died by 1995, though its artifacts live on in collector circles and advertising lore. As ’90s fashion and music cycle back through popular culture, this epic story of food, failure and the secret heart of youth culture highlights the arrogance of business people who think they know what you want and how to manipulate you into buying it.
When OK Soda was introduced, of course, Coke executives were certain they had it right. Drawing on a study from MIT, the company had pinpointed what Generation X was all about. “Economic prosperity is less available than it was for their parents,” Lanahan theorized. “Even traditional rites of passage, such as sex, are fraught with life-or-death consequences.” Tom Pirko, a Coke marketing consultant, told NPR, “People who are nineteen years old are very accustomed to having been manipulated and knowing that they’re manipulated.” He described the soda’s potential audience as “already truly wasted. I mean, their lethargy probably can’t be penetrated by any commercial message.”
How to sell soft drinks to such people? The answer was to embrace the angst. Coke turned to Wieden + Kennedy, the ultra-hip Portland, Oregon, ad firm that had devised Nike’s “Just Do It” campaign. The agency’s pitch has become the stuff of soda lore: research had shown that Coca-Cola was the second most recognized term in the world. The first was OK, which, the firm pointed out, was also the two middle letters of Coke. So why not combine the two? The drink was christened OK Soda, and its semi-reassuring motto was “Things are going to be OK.”