Pepsi's Throwback Success Shows the Irrestible Appeal of Playing Hard to Get

Last Updated Oct 27, 2010 9:11 AM EDT

In an age when soda is singled out for taxation and lampooned as liquid love handles, Pepsi (PEP) has defied the odds and turned Pepsi Throwback into a runaway hit, thanks largely to the way its brand managers have utilized one of the most enduring principles of human nature -- we want what we can't have.

When Pepsi Throwback, which is made with sugar instead of high fructose corn syrup, was first launched in April 2009 it was for a "limited time only." Two months later Pepsi yanked the product from shelves, leaving fans to wonder whether it would ever return. When it did last December, again for a "limited time only," customers rushed to stores to buy cases before precious supplies ran out. Now Throwback is slated for another release next year.

The upshot of all this teasing is the kind of buzz and customer-generated hysteria most new products never get. There are three Facebook pages dedicated to Throwback, with a total of about 20,000 fans, and a handful of blogs that breathlessly track the drink's whereabouts. Sales too have been impressive -- some $41 million in just over a year -- especially when you consider that Pepsi has done very little marketing since the initial release.

McDonald's has successfully employed this strategy of scarcity -- some might say it's a gimmick -- for years with its McRib sandwich, which pops up sporadically in different restaurants around the country.

For Pepsi, a staged roll out, in addition to stoking demand, has enabled a much-needed fine tuning for Throwback's packaging. The first iteration featured an unfamiliar iridescent blue logo and the claim that it was "made with natural sugar," prompting people to wonder what artificial sugar might be. The current version, which features Pepsi's classic red, white and blue logo, gets it right, simultaneously capitalizing on the appeal of all things retro and the current revulsion towards high fructose corn syrup.


Many Throwback fans, most of whom are male, are gulping it down not because they worry about HFCS being unhealthy (hello, it's still soda), but because they prefer the taste of sugar-sweetened sodas. In the U.S., most soda brands were sweetened with sugar prior to the early 80's when the beverage industry replaced it with cheaper HFCS. Steve of BevReview, for instance, abhors the syrupy residue of Pepsi with HFCS:
While HFCS Pepsi starts out a bit watery, with a bit of chemical flavor, Pepsi Throwback is cleaner, producing a consistent cola taste from first sip.
For Pepsi, which has also made a similar version of Mountain Dew, selling Throwback as a "limited time only" product is only partly a marketing gimmick. It's also a risk-free way to test out their theory that customers want more natural ingredients in mass market processed products, which is still very much just a theory since Pepsi Natural hasn't exactly been flying off the shelves. Last month the company reformulated one of its minor brands -- lemon-lime soda Sierra Mist -- by taking out HFCS, removing preservatives and adding "Natural" to the name.

Image by Flckr user SeeMidTN.com
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