Stupid Question ™
Feb. 24, 2000
By John Ruch
Q: Why is “red pop” red? It doesn’t taste like any red fruit.
A: Big Red, the country’s top-selling red soda, tastes like bubble gum.
Barq’s Red Creme Soda, Ohio’s favorite red-colored soda, is a cream soda with no hint of any fruit flavoring.
But Faygo’s Redpop is a “strawberry soda.” And the majority of red-colored sodas—Cherry 7-Up, Tahitian Treat, Stewart’s Cherries ’n’ Cream—are fruit-flavored.
Soda started out as a health drink—herbs and flavorings added to supposedly invigorating carbonated water by pharmacists in the 1830s. Almost all were fruit-flavored, and strawberry was an early and perennial favorite.
The problem was that nearly all sodas, as a mixture of water and extract-syrup, are naturally transparent. Artificial color had to be added to make the drink recognizable and to identify it with its flavoring. So, by the late 1800s, the industry was referring to its products as the “red line” (strawberry and other fruit flavors), “brown line” (colas), etc.
Consumers noticed the color, too. Strawberry soda became a standard element of the Juneteenth end-of-slavery celebrations under the name “red soda” or “red pop.”
The industry quickly realized the significance of red coloring. It’s a bright, “fun” color. By the 1940s, most red soda was consumed by children.
It’s also strongly associated with healthy fruit. And psychological research showed that consumers’ perception of a food’s taste is more dependent on color than on actual flavor; if it looks good, people will think it is good.
By the 1960s, the red color had become an end in itself, a way to attract consumers to a fruitless red product.
Faygo’s Strawberry Soda was renamed Redpop. Suntang Red Soda became Big Red. Local companies such as Detroit’s Towne Club sprang up, selling pop identified by color rather than flavor.
Red soda is the only kind that’s done well by simply calling itself by its color. Big Red, for example, wasn’t so hot back in the early 1900s, when it was a “Big Green.”
“People didn’t know what it was,” said Marc Fowler, CEO of Waco, Texas-based Big Red, Inc. In the 1930s, the same flavor soda was changed to a red color and immediately outsold the company’s other sodas.
“It’s amazing what color perception can do,” Fowler said.
However, there is a downside to the psychology of pure-red soda, as Big Red is learning right here in Ohio. The rise of fruit juices has made consumers more picky about exact flavors, and Big Red advertises no exact flavor.
Barq’s Red Creme Soda, on the other hand, is doing fine here. So only in Ohio, Big Red labels identify the drink as a “red cream soda”—which Fowler admits is a total lie to trick you into trying the drink.
If Big Red’s not a cream soda, what is it?
“We tell people this stuff just tastes red,” he said.