Messing with classics tastes wrong

May 20, 2002|By Kevin Cowherd

Let's begin with this inherent truth: There are certain products so wonderful they should never be tinkered with. And when they are, the results are inevitably disastrous.

Look what happened with the Ford Mustang. The Mustang of the mid-'60s had a classic, distinctive design. Over the years, though, it's been tinkered with so much it looks like every other mid-size on the road, to the point where you see one now and say: "What is that, a Dodge Stratus?"

Same thing with the Oreo cookie. The Oreo cookie was the most perfect cookie in the world. Then some suit at Nabisco with too much time on his hands said: "What if we add peanut butter to it?"

Thus was born those hideous Double-Delight Oreos you're starting to see on supermarket shelves, with the unholy alliance of creamy chocolate filling and peanut butter so sweet it would gag a third-grader.

Now look what they're doing with Coke. What they're doing is rolling out a new product called Vanilla Coke, with a target demographic of 18-to-29-year-olds.

In fact, Vanilla Coke is undergoing the most heralded launch of a Coke product since New Coke in 1985.

New Coke, you'll recall, was the Hindenburg of all product launches. Somehow deciding that what the American public wanted was a product even sweeter than original Coke, Coca-Cola chucked its revered 99-year-old recipe in making New Coke, which was quickly rejected by consumers.

(Cherry Coke, by the way, was also launched in '85. But in comparison to the furor that greeted New Coke - where you expected angry torch-bearing mobs to descend on supermarket beverage aisles like Balkan villagers hunting the Wolfman - Cherry Coke was practically a hit.)

Nevertheless, here comes Vanilla Coke.

Susan McDermott, a spokesperson at Coke corporate headquarters in Atlanta, said that in addition to the target demographic, Vanilla Coke should also appeal to older consumers who once ordered vanilla Cokes at soda fountains, and younger ones who, surveys show, like a splash of vanilla with their beverages.

Well, maybe.

To find out how the product was going over here, we conducted a thoroughly scientific taste-test that consisted of walking up to people with 20-oz. Vanilla Cokes and saying: "Here, try this" before they could run away.

Our first taster was Michelle Mulreaney, a bright 16-year-old junior at Dulaney High.

She took a sip and made the kind of face you'd make if you just, oh, swallowed Clorox.

For several seconds she was silent, to the point where I thought: Dear God, maybe that was Clorox I gave her.

Finally she said: "It kind of tastes like a root beer float - almost."

This, of course, was not the kind of consumer response the big shots at Coke want to hear. Otherwise, I'm guessing, they would have named their new product Root Beer Coke.

The next person who took our taste-test was Joe Metz of Edgewood, who admitted to having a serious Coke jones.

Metz, 23, does not have an IV drip of Coke hooked up to one arm, but might as well, since he admits to banging back five or six Cokes a day at his job at Cranbrook Liquors in Cockeysville.

Six Cokes would tend to make one a little jittery, would they not? If they were wheeling me into the operating room, I would not want a neurosurgeon leaning over me who'd just knocked back a half-dozen Cokes. You gotta figure that scalpel's going to be shaking a little bit.

But Metz seemed calm enough, and he was also squarely in the age bracket that Vanilla Coke hopes to attract.

So I poured a shot of the stuff into a cheap plastic cup - oh, yeah, we go first class at The Sun - and Metz took a swig. Then he took another.

"I like it," he said. "It tastes like cream soda."

But here's the thing: He didn't say it with any enthusiasm. He didn't say it with feeling.

He said it the way a guy would say to his wife: "I like the new border you put up in the bedroom."

Sure enough, within seconds, Metz was back-pedaling like Lennox Lewis on his initial assessment. "I'd buy it," he said now, "but I wouldn't drink it over Coke."

Just then, a man named Todd Moran walked up to us. Moran is 34 and also works at Cranbrook Liquors. Moreover, he turned out to be another soda freak. If there's something new on the market, he said, "I'm all over it."

So he took a swig of Vanilla Coke right out of the bottle; from a scientific standpoint, things were degenerating fast.

Then he said - and I'm quoting very accurately here - "I love it."

You love it? I said.

"It's great," he said. "I'd buy it."

Clearly, it was time to end the taste-test.

These things tend to go on too long, anyway.

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