Branding Reality Bites: The Strange Tale Of OK Soda

2015 brings us a little-heralded marketing anniversary – it’s been 20 years since Coca-Cola pulled OK Soda from the market. If you’ve not heard of OK, or you’ve forgotten it, that’s more than forgivable. The drink – meant to appeal to the ironic, cynical, Nirvana-loving teens of Generation X – was launched in 1993 but never made it to general release. OK Soda survives now as an occasional case study and minor cult – like the Ford Edsel, it haunts the graveyard of global brands that never were.

But can OK Soda hold any lessons for modern marketers? I think it can. Let’s start with the name…

LESSON ONE: Fluency

The origin of OK Soda’s name is one of the most interesting things about it. Supposedly, it drew on market research suggesting that while the word “Coke” was globally recognised, it was beaten by the word “OK”. Hence, OK Soda – a brand waiting to happen.

On the surface, it’s not a bad idea. As marketing scientist Byron Sharp explains in How Brands Grow, brands work by owning distinctive assets – logos, colours, sounds, words, or anything else that can be rapidly and unconsciously linked to the brand. The more you build up the fluency of these assets – how easily people can associate them with the brand –  the more effective they become.

So OK Soda may have been on the right track. Given enough time and marketing support, even a very common word like “OK” could turn into an asset. And the drink’s logo and pack designs – black type in a red border, with creepy illustrations by indie comics stars like Dan Clowes – certainly stood out. So what was the problem?

LESSON TWO: Fame

When I was 20, and first read about OK Soda, I honestly loved the idea. I recognised the work of Clowes and Charles Burns immediately from the comics I’d been reading, and was attracted by the brand’s “anti-marketing” concepts – daring to be cryptic and self-deprecating. I was, in other words, the absolute dream customer for OK Soda: a walking, talking, flannel-shirt-wearing, indie-pop listening, ironic Gen X cliché. And it worked for me.

But the fact I liked it so much should have made marketers run a mile. As Andrew Ehrenberg first identified, if you want your brand to be big, focus on gaining penetration not loyalty. Brands don’t grow by laser-guiding their appeal to hit a particular demographic. They grow when they broaden it so that buying one feels right for almost anybody. That doesn’t mean losing what makes brands individual. But for brands that aspire to be big, getting famous is what matters. And the number of people who ticked every Gen X box – from the alt.rock to the comics to the fashionable cynicism – just wasn’t as big as the trend pieces claimed.

This lesson is probably the least learned. Brands are still in love with the idea of generations – witness the marketers thronging to launch products aimed at Millennials over the last few years. OK Soda should be a warning to them. But winning over a target market can at least be a springboard for wider fame – so why didn’t it happen?

LESSON THREE: Feeling

Everything we know about marketing and communication underlines how much feeling matters. Building fame helps a product grow. Creating fluency helps it come easily to mind. But feeling good means the associations built are broadly positive ones. We’re not talking about falling in love with a brand, just feeling good enough about it that the decision to buy it comes easily. This is why there’s so much evidence that communications which make people feel more are best placed to make them buy and pay more.

But OK Soda was a very unusual brand in this regard. Almost exceptional, in fact. It’s not the slightly barbed or even deliberately negative advertising that makes it strange, it’s the way that OK Soda, uniquely, was a brand that aimed for neutrality in emotion. An awful lot of brands end up at neutrality – because they pack their communications with tedious product information or bark reasons to believe at people. But the blank faces on OK’s cans, the deliberate starkness of the typeface, and even the way the packs put scare-quotes round “beverage” – it’s all deliberately trying to create a sense of distance and neutrality. It’s fascinating. It’s unnerving. It’s artistic, even. But it’s not how you make people feel good and buy your brand.

So the verdict on OK Soda, twenty years on? Ambitious, but doomed. It had potentially distinctive assets in place, and was trying to do something genuinely new in its category. But it failed because it pandered so strongly to a single demographic, and because it deliberately avoided positive emotion. For OK, things were never going to be okay.

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