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A blue-note on Vanilla Coke
Putting new twists on old products can only go so far.
April 4, 2002: 11:05 AM EST

Vanilla Coke. Sigh. Why don't the Corporate Suits leave poor Coke alone?

It isn't here yet. But Beverage Digest, the soda pop industry's trade mag, says it's probably coming in the next few months. And a there are reports that some test marketing has gone on here and there.

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Great. At least Cherry Coke, which I find sticky-sickly sweet, has some sort of romanticized 1950s historical precedent.

Sure some people may like it. God knows some people swear by Diet Coke with Lemon. And there are folks already getting shots of vanilla syrup in their Coke. But is this impress-the-date, I'm-so-trendy crowd enough of a customer base to make it worth shoving into a can and mass-marketing? Coke apparently thinks so.

Sales of its mainstay, Coca-Cola Classic, seem to be falling off a bit (down 2 percent last year). A new product in the line-up, carefully avoiding a repeat of the New Coke debacle, could jazz up things.

Or Coke might just cannibalize its own sales. After all, juices and sports drinks seem to be the ones making beverage market inroads -- not other sodas. Which is more likely at the concession stand: "I'll have a Coke...hey, make that a Vanilla Coke instead" or "I'll have a Gatorade...hey, make that a Vanilla Coke instead."

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Of course, there are cases where altering a product may keep customers with a certain brand. Take green and purple ketchup -- brain children of H.J. Heinz and Co. It's still ketchup, whether it's red or teal (another color it's considering), and if you are going to have ketchup on your fries, you're going to have ketchup on your fries.

But, maybe by having the green ketchup, which little Junior loves to play with, Heinz will keep you from picking a different kind of red ketchup to go on your family fries.

And if that's not enough to keep you on the Heinz reservation, they've got chocolate and cinnamon fries too. Honest.

Yes, there is a place for product differentiation, whether you like the notion of Vanilla Coke or not. But it can go too far.

Take the government's notion of making U.S. currency -- the good ole greenback -- multicolored. Ewwww.

The Feds claim it's necessary to stop counterfeiters. I thought jail time -- lots of it -- did that. And isn't that why we put the oversized pictures and watermarks on the bills? Surely there are better ways of doing it than giving up the green.

Others claim it will help people differentiate between denominations -- less mix ups at the checkout counter. Did I give you a ten or a twenty? What's wrong with looking at the number in the corner? Color-blind people are going to have to do that anyway.

It's taking this a-flavor-for-everybody, a-color-for-everybody trend too far. Did we suddenly get British God Bless the Queen tissue-paper pound note envy? What's the next step, putting a crown and a dress on Alexander Hamilton? God forbid. In these particularly turbulent times, having a currency that is distinctively and historically American is, well, comforting.

In business, the profit line will keep Coke and ketchup from going too far afield. Government is a different matter.

Yes, I may have to trade in my creme soda for a Vanilla Coke. And purple ketchup may have to go on my fries. But please, please, don't make me have to lay out a fuscia five-note for them.  Top of page

Allen Wastler, managing editor of CNN/Money, can be emailed here.