Most people would be thrilled to live in a city as hip and sophisticated as San Francisco. But Natalie Kueneman, web developer by trade, remembers how tough things were for her there. The problem wasn’t that there was no arts or tech scene; it was that Kueneman couldn’t find Tab cola for sale anywhere in town. The nearest metro area that sold Tab was Sacramento—75 miles away.
“Do you know Task Rabbit? I’d hire Task Rabbit to drive to Sacramento,” she recalled on a recent afternoon. “My Tab got very expensive.”
What’s surprising about this story isn’t so much the lengths that Kueneman went to buy a brand of soft drink, but that she’s hardly alone. When she’s not working on projects for clients, Kueneman runs ILoveTab.com, a fan site where one can learn many fascinating things about Tab, but none more singular than this: After 56 years and no shortage of corporate neglect, Tab is still with us.
Tab wasn’t the first diet soda in America, but it was the first one that mattered. In 1961, Royal Crown introduced Diet Rite, which immediately tapped into the 28% of Americans watching their weight. Caught off guard, the soda giants scrambled to get in on the action: Pepsi with a drink called Patio Cola and, by May 1963, Coca-Cola with a drink it called Tab.
To join in the diet-soda craze, Cola-Cola rushed Tab through R&D in less than a year (1), choosing a name from a randomly generated list created by an IBM mainframe (2), then hiring famed designer Sid Dickens to create a distinctive logo. (3) The result was a stylish six-pack of long-necked bottles (4), though these eventually gave way exclusively to cans. Tab’s marketing invariably emphasized the lack of sugar, with the best-known tagline asking: “How can just one calorie taste so good?” (5) In later years, after Diet Coke made off with Tab’s market share, Tab became a product incubator of sorts, yielding unsuccessful extensions like 2006’s Tab Energy. (6)
1, 2, 3, 4, 5: Courtesy of Coca-Cola; 6: Getty Images
Developed in less than a year by Coke’s Fanta division, Tab used saccharin as a sweetener (sodium cyclamate was the sweet stuff in Diet Rite) and sported a sharp citrusy flavor that served up a mere 1 calorie in every six ounces. As for the name, an IBM mainframe 1401 cranked out a randomized collection of 2.3 million short names, from which Coke execs eventually chose Tab. Early on, there was a running joke that Tab was an acronym that stood for “totally artificial beverage,” but the official line is that the name was a reference to how women were keeping tabs on their diet.
And for years, “The Beautiful Drink for Beautiful People,” as Tab was advertised, did have plenty of people drinking it. But it could not survive the one-two punch that was coming. In the late 1970s, a series of scientific studies (since dismissed) linked saccharin to bladder cancer in rats, and Tab’s reputation took a hit. Then, in 1982, the aspartame-fueled Diet Coke appeared on shelves, which helped drive down Tab’s share of Coca-Cola’s sales to 1%.
In the early 1960s when Tab hit the market, its ads played rather shamelessly on the insecurities of women, especially those in search of male validation.
Courtesy of ILoveTaB
So why hasn’t Coke just unplugged the Tab machinery and walked away? Well, for one, Tab has functioned as a bit of a product incubator for the company. In 1992, amid the craze for clear beverages such as Zima and Crystal Pepsi, Coke launched Tab Clear. (It flopped.) Fourteen years later, as Monster Energy swept the teen market, Coke debuted Tab Energy. (It flopped, too.) As of 2017, Tab accounted for a mere .03% of Coca-Cola’s total sales. “I think it’s honestly kind of a miracle that it’s still around,” Kueneman said.
But it is still around, and Coke corporate—though it furnishes no marketing support—has acknowledged that Tab has “a real cult following.” Indeed, if this is possible, Tab has become rather trendy again. At New York’s swank TWA Hotel—housed in Eero Saarinen’s historic 1962 Flight Center at JFK Airport—Tab is available in the lobby and the rooms. Deadpanned Tyler Morse, CEO of the hotel: “Tab has been America’s favorite totally artificial beverage since 1963.”