Fifty years ago, on Feb. 14, 1963 in Springfield, Mass, TaB, the first low-calorie product of The Coca-Cola Company, was bottled to be test marketed. The event launched a half century of leadership by The Coca-Cola Company in low/no-calorie beverages and marked the culmination of an intense, yearlong effort to overcome a number of technological and engineering obstacles.

In 1962, diet beverages accounted for less than 3 percent of all soft drinks sold, but that same year, internal studies conducted by Coke showed that up to 28 percent of consumers were interested in a low-calorie product. Coca-Cola launched "Project Alpha" in July 1962 with an aggressive timeline. The Company assembled a product team with a cross section from engineering (to design the package), technical (to develop the product), and marketing/market research. The team was supposed to have a test sample ready by Jan. 1, 1963 and have the drink ready for market distribution by May 1. 

Dr. Cliff Shillinglaw led the research and development team that create the delicious-tasting diet cola. The two main obstacles they had to overcome were the “thin” mouth feel of diet drinks and the bitter aftertaste associated with artificial sweeteners. By December, after testing hundreds of variations, the team felt it had developed a drink with perfect flavor and sweetness levels. The final formulation was selected just before Christmas 1962.

But now, the drink needed a name, and, for this brand, the company used an unusual method. Market research showed that consumers preferred a short name (between three and six letters) that still was impactful and easy to remember. To obtain a list of potential names, William Mannen, chief programmer for data processing, programmed the company’s IBM 1401 mainframe computer to print all possible four-letter word combinations containing a vowel or vowel-sounding letter. The results took a day to print and contained more than 300,000 possible combinations. This list was narrowed down to 600 possibilities, which were then given to the legal department to check against existing trademarks. After legal narrowed the list again, TaB was chosen from among the final two dozen contenders. Why? Because it was distinctive and easy to remember, and it projected the desired image.

With a delicious product and name in place, next up was a logo and a package. The design was commissioned to Robert Sidney Dickens Inc. of Chicago. For the logo, the initial decision was to have all uppercase block letters. However, Dickens felt that exaggerating the “T” would make the name more memorable, so the “A” was lowercased to fit in the new design, but was given a swirl and a downward pointing arrow to keep it from being lost.

The TaB bottle is a masterpiece, but was difficult to execute. More than a dozen designs were created by Ken Yoshizumi of the Dickens organization. The final bottle selected was made with flint glass with applied color decorations. To help the bottle stand out, Yoshizumi decided to incorporate a textured surface below the shoulder of the bottle. Countless tests were conducted to ensure the textured shape would work with the existing bottling machinery. The final version featured the textured surface and the stylized snowflakes used at the launch.

In 1963, The Fanta Beverage Company was a separate but wholly owned subsidiary of The Coca-Cola Company. The Fanta Beverage Company handled the marketing for Fanta and Sprite, and TaB was added to its list of products. McCann-Marschalk developed the brand's initial marketing campaign and focused on the dual theme of full flavor and low calorie. The initial ads touted a product “Brimming with flavor” and with “One calorie in a 6-oz serving.”

The test in Springfield was a success, so plans were made to roll out the product nationwide in May 1963, right on schedule. By 1964, TaB was available in more than 90 percent of the country, and by the middle of the decade, TaB was the No. 1 diet drink on the market -- a position it maintained until Diet Coke was introduced in 1982. 

We will tell part two of the TaB story in May. In the meantime, do you have a TaB story you'd like to share? Let us know in the comments section below.