When US style Cola Wars reached the United Kingdom
The 1990s was an oddball decade which began with Thatcher and ended with Blair. The first part ushered in the Cones Hotline, Sonic the Hedgehog and the C64GS flop games console, whereas the latter part brought us mass mobile phone ownership, the Teletubbies and fancy dan coffee shops. Televisually, it was a creative decade at one end which saw Father Ted and Absolutely Fabulous on our screens, with at the other end, the end of ITV as a genuine regional broadcaster.
In between this hubris, Wet Wet Wet’s version of Love Is All Around seemed destined to occupy the number one spot forever. Interrupting this was Britpop: Blur and Oasis. Contrary to popular belief, there was another Britpop movement taking place.
The UK’s answer to the US’ Cola Wars.
Whereas there was great rivalry between Coca Cola and Pepsi on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, gaining prime position on the UK’s supermarket aisles would be far from the two horse race expected by the American giants. Britain’s superstore chains had in the mid 1990s – and still maintain today – a strong own brand presence, complementing global brands like Coca Cola, Kellogg’s and Unilever. In the early 1990s, there was still a number of local and lesser national brands like Ben Shaws, Silver Spring, Carters and A.G. Barr. Both manufacturers also had their own cola drinks. Silver Spring’s Rola Cola would later be immortalised by Peter Kay. Barr’s Strike Cola was fairly popular in Scotland and Northern England. Therefore, an arms race between Pepsi and Coca Cola would have been less effective on UK shores.
A Phoney Cola War
In January 1993, the Coca Cola Company launched Tab Clear to an unsuspecting British public. It was the subject of a sophisticated launch campaign with archive film used for its 30 second advertisement. The Big Breakfast had a taste test between Tab Clear and Crystal Pepsi. The former won hands down, and the Pepsi brand never saw a UK launch. On launch, Tab Clear was the subject of a media campaign where free cans of the clear cola were handed out to commuters on Piccadilly Gardens. No amount of gimmicks would stop the clear cola from faltering and disappearing from our shelves.
In April of the same year came Pepsi Max. This fared far better and – at one point – outsold the standard Pepsi and Diet Pepsi drinks. The success of which would encourage the Coca Cola Company to launch Coca Cola Zero in later years. By 1994, a high impact television and cinema campaign (with extreme sports a la Bodyform ad) garnered instant brand recognition, not least the fact it had no calories. Blackpool Pleasure Beach’s then new roller coaster, The Big One, was sponsored by Pepsico’s recent product line.
Pepsi Max proved that the stranglehold between the two full sugar brands could be loosened (even if it meant undermining its core brand a little). Sir Richard Branson scented blood with his 1994 launch of Virgin Cola, and the superstore chains also raised their game. The customers wanted a cheaper alternative to the big two brands, though something which tasted just as well as Pepsi or Coca Cola.
Attack of the Superstore Cola Clones
There had always been own brand colas for several years, prior to 1995’s Other Britpop Revolution. Prior to 1994, it was just another flavour along with lemon, cherry and orange carbonated drinks. There were no attempts at cod Americana either.
In March 1995, Sainsbury’s Classic Cola ruffled the feathers of the Coca Cola Company. It was claimed that its packaging was too similar to their biggest selling drink. A tad ironic was the fact that 1985’s New Coke Catastrophe saw a reversion to the original recipe, known as ‘Coca Cola Classic’. In the end, Sainsbury’s changed its packaging slightly, to avoid misleading customers in search of the real thing.
The Sainsbury’s product was a credible rival to the big two in the taste stakes. I had a glass of it once at Dukinfield Astley High School during an interval between their production of Grease. It had a slight essence of vanilla with a slightly smoother taste than the Atlantan product.
Elsewhere, Morrisons cashed in on the fake Americana, rebranding their cola as Liberty Cola. The supposed American style cola had all the consistency of cough medicine, characterised by many a budget priced cola. There was also Stripe Cola, Nisa’s answer. Though a little on the cough medicine side, it was slightly sweeter.
ASDA’s own brand cola had a slight Pepsi taste to it, but its syrupy taste and viscosity made for a little over-sweet aftertaste. It even had Coca Cola style diagonal white pinstripes on a maroon background. ‘Cola’ was printed on the can or bottle in Crillie Extra Bold typeface.
At the other end of the market, there was Topstar Cola, ALDI’s brand. Topstar was used by ALDI for all its fizzy drinks. Needless to say, its cheap and cheerful nature saw Topstar cans in many a lunch box whilst I was in comprehensive school.
Superstore chains weren’t alone in this battle for Britain’s cola. 1995 saw the launch of Woolworth’s Cola. I remember it being similar to ASDA’s cola, though without the treacle like consistency. It was better than most superstore own brand colas at the time. Though a relative latecomer in 1997, Marks and Spencer had a slice of the action. Theirs is slightly similar to Woolworth’s example, even outliving its bricks and mortar stores, and a high profile third force, launched in 1994.
Even high value department stores weren’t alone in this: Manchester United plc launched ‘Champs Cola’, to celebrate its first double winning season. (Who would have thought that their double would have coincided with a UK Cola War?). With only limited shelf space, it was in cola terms, akin to Massimo Taibi’s second appearance for Manchester United, or the infamous grey kit and briefly darkened our off licences and supermarkets.
Revenge of the Cola Duopolists: the rise and fall of Virgin Cola
Released with much fanfare, Sir Richard Branson aimed to make Virgin Cola a formidable alternative to Coca Cola and Pepsi. On launch, it had a taste which veered somewhere between Pepsi and Coca Cola with the tartness of the latter and sweetness of the former. It was quite a decent alternative to the big two.
Virgin’s empire building in cola land saw them take over from Woolworth’s short lived own brand. They also signed up a deal with TESCO where Virgin Cola would be sold in place of TESCO’s own brand variety. Virgin West Coast and Virgin Cross Country passengers would too have their own cola on board.
With confidence in its own brand, he did what most successful artistes on his record label would have done: try to make it big in America. In 1998, cans of his titular fizzy drink appeared on Friends, with Sir Richard Branson appearing in another episode set in London. Internal politics and an increased marketing budget by Coca Cola scuppered its success in the States.
In Britain, sales were far from convincing. 1999 figures saw Virgin Cola only amounting for £28.6 million – one twenty-secondth of its Atlantan rival. By the noughties it was gradually dropped by superstores, in spite of having a steady presence in independent shops. In August 2009, ASDA dropped it from their shelves.
Back from the dead?
Virgin Cola is still available for sale in Nigeria and the Philippines and (possibly) on Virgin West Coast and Virgin Atlantic operations. Two years after its fall from grace, a business-to-business PR company. Clock Creative Communications (Bury, Lancashire) has been charged with the task of resurrecting Virgin Cola. So far results have been promising, though a mere teaspoon in a tidal wave of Coca Cola.
Today, Cabana Soft Drinks own the rights to Virgin Cola and are part of Nicholls plc. Nicholls plc’s portfolio also includes Sunkist, the Ben Shaws range of fizzy drinks and their most famous drink of all, Vimto.
Fast forwarding to 2012, it seems that the cola wars are no more. Coca Cola and Pepsico have stitched up the market on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. With this being the case, niche marketing seems a realistic idea for wannabe competitors. Cabana’s main business comes from cafés, restaurants, public houses and working men’s clubs. At the other end, we have fair trade colas (Ubuntu cola) and premium priced colas (Fentiman’s Curiosity Cola). Today, the market is more diverse than ever, but there are numerous customers of a present day and new generation intent on opting for the real thing.
S.V., 15 May 2012.