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Fan Favourite Products That Never Left Test Markets

Written by Kevin Jennings

If you live in Columbus, Ohio, you have likely tried a plethora of products that the rest of the world has never had the chance to enjoy, or loathe depending on the quality of the offering. While other locations are used as well, Columbus has long been the number one choice for companies to use a test market for new products as the demographics make it an ideal microcosm for the rest of the United States.

            Releasing products in test markets remains popular in fast food industries, but due to the extreme cost, how long it takes to properly test a new offering, and the fear of competition purchasing and reverse engineering these product, many companies rely more on focus groups and limited releases rather than test markets. When a potential product fails the test and doesn’t receive a widespread release, it often results in a cult following. Here are a few fan favourite items that never made it past test markets.

McPizza

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            While the McPizza did ultimately make it to as many as 500 McDonald’s locations by 1991, that is a far cry from the 6,900 locations that existed in 1980 or the 37,000 that exist today. The company was doing great numbers with their breakfast offerings in the 1980s, but by dinnertime the numbers weren’t what McDonald’s wanted them to be. They wanted to try something different than just burgers and fries that could attract whole families to come and enjoy their dinner at McDonald’s, such was the genesis of the McPizza.

            Originally, the pizza was served as a standard, family sized pizza that was brought to the table by waitstaff. Cooking a whole pizza takes time though, so this was mostly scaled down to personal size pizzas that could be cooked much faster. One of the earliest options even seemed to include McDonald’s own version of the hot pocket, a mini-calzone that could be served easily through the drive-thru without the customer getting cheese everywhere.

            As far as taste is concerned, people generally liked the pizza. While some called it mediocre, the overall consensus seems to be that it was actually really good, often being one of the best pizzas in town, depending on the location. Keep in mind this is also 40 years later, so most of the people still talking about it are going to be the ones that have fond nostalgia for the McPizza. When I saw it on a menu at a McDonald’s in Maine back in the 90s, I had to give it a try for the sheer novelty value. Personally, I thought it was fine. It was hardly the best pizza I had ever had, but it was better than your standard frozen pizza of the era.

            So where did it all go wrong? If taste wasn’t the issue, what prevented the McPizza from being a mainstay of the restaurant for decades to come? There were two major issues. The first was cost. At a time when a cheeseburger at McDonald’s was 75 cents, a 14 inch cheese pizza was $5.80. That’s over 7 cheeseburgers. There was also a deluxe pizza which was $9. It doesn’t seem like a bad price by today’s standards, but in 1992 McDonald’s ran its 2 for $2 Big Mac campaign. One pizza versus eight Big Macs is not much of a competition in most people’s minds.

            There’s also the issue of time. The average wait time at a McDonald’s drive-thru is around 284 seconds, or just under 5 minutes. This time starts from the moment you pull into line with 5 cars ahead of you to the moment you receive your food. That is astonishingly fast,  and the target time for each drive-thru order to be prepared is about 60 seconds. By contrast, the full size McPizza took 11 minutes to cook. By fast food standards, you’d have died of old age before your pizza came. The personal pizzas were faster, taking only 4 minutes to cook, but that’s still a long time, especially for all the people behind you in the drive-thru.

            While McDonald’s eventually discontinued the McPizza, not all restaurants were ready to abandon the idea just yet. Franchise owner Greg Mills continued to sell the McPizza at the two locations he owned, one in Ohio and one in West Virginia, all the way until 2017. Locals of these restaurants were big fans, but as always, the internet had to ruin everything. The existence of these two locations started going viral, resulting in people driving hours to come try the McPizza. Three friends from Canada filmed their 500 mile trip from Ontario to West Virginia just to try the pizza. I’m sure it was a riveting documentary. 

            Unfortunately for Greg, all of this viral attention eventually made its way to McDonald’s Corporate Headquarters. They brought the hammer down, and demanded that he stop selling pizza. If anyone had been holding out hope that corporate may change course and try to revive the McPizza, it seems like the company would like to put this part of their history behind them once and for all.

OK Soda

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            “What’s the point of OK? Well, what’s the point of anything?” This is an excerpt from the OK Soda manifesto that was printed on some of the cans. For those of us that remember the product, OK Soda was something truly remarkable. It was the “Daria” of soft drinks, something brilliantly cynical that was the most 1990s thing ever. Yet by all accounts, it may have been ahead of its time.

            OK Soda was manufactured by Coca-Cola, something they were legally required to print but absolutely did not advertise. While later packaging designs described it as a “unique fruity soda”, they also never advertised exactly what it was supposed to taste like. Rumours circulated that OK stood for “Orange Coke”, but this obviously makes no sense, and the taste was not that of orange soda. The product was never about the taste, though. It absolutely tasted good, but that wasn’t the point. It was all about the marketing.

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            The marketing campaign was offbeat, featuring artwork from popular alternative cartoonists. Cartoonist Daniel Clowes modeled the OK Soda mascot on the facial features of Charles Manson on the basis that nothing he signed said “Don’t put a mass murderer on the can.” His design was unchanged, so Coca-Cola must have agreed with his logic. Besides, the marketing was meant to be subversive, so it’s hard to argue that Clowes wasn’t doing exactly what he was hired to do. The character may have shared some similar facial features, but without the hair and beard, it also didn’t really exude a Manson vibe anyway.

The brand was also self-deprecating. It never promised to be great or good, simply OK, and some advertisements went as far as to compare the drink’s taste to “carbonated tree sap”. The target audience was Generation X, possibly the first generation to truly understand from a young age that they were being targeted and manipulated by mass media and advertisements. Coca-Cola wanted to play into that and offer customers something slightly more honest. This drink never claimed to be the next big thing, it simply promised to be OK.

            The taste and the product itself were entirely secondary to the feeling of “OK-ness” they were trying to promote. Aside from their official slogan, “Things are going to be okay”, there was also the manifesto mentioned earlier. While the first quote I mentioned is a bit more nihilistic, their goal can be better summarized by one of the other statements in the manifesto: “Please wake up every morning knowing that things are going to be OK.”

            To that end, the soda also had its own toll-free number, 1-800-I-FEEL-OK. Every day, the content on the number would change. There was a prompt of true or false questions inspired by the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, a personality and psychopathology test used by mental health professionals. While this may have been used to collect demographic data, more likely it was just to help push people towards their own feelings of OK-ness. The much more excited part of the phone number was that every day there were new stories about how OK soda changed people’s lives to be more OK. You could even record your own story of why you felt OK, in the hopes that it would later be played for other people.

            Coca-Cola also used OK Soda to bring back its failed MagiCan experiment. For more on that, check out “That Time Coca Cola Spent $100 Million Intentionally Fillings Its Cans With Fart Water” over on the Today I Found Out Channel. If you can’t tell from the title of that video, the MagiCan promotion did not go well. This time, however, they figured out how to do things right. The Prize cans of OK Soda that could be found in vending machines were visibly distinct from normal cans, and the entire top of the can peeled off to reveal the prize inside. The prize was OK branded merchandise, usually a hat. Did that cool new hat fail to quench your thirst? Well fear not, inside the can were also two shiny quarters, enough to purchase another can of actual soda from the vending machine.

            So why did OK Soda fail? It was released in 1993 but discontinued in 1995, a relatively short life span, even for a test product of the era. The short answer is that it failed to gain more than 3% of the market share in the test markets, but that’s not the real answer. The cynical, self-deprecating, interactive, and viral style of marketing that the brand relied on was aimed at Generation X, those born in the 70s and late 60s, but the ones that it truly resonated with were those of us born in the 1980s. It’s hard for your key demographic to vote with their wallets when they’re all 13 years old or younger and don’t have any fucking money.

            Truly, OK Soda was ahead of its time. Their strange marketing was done a disservice by being produced in an essentially pre-internet age, and the people that would have made up its core demographic were too young. Had the product been created 10 or maybe even 5 years later, the internet would allow these ads to go truly viral, and the people the brand resonated with would finally be old enough to have jobs to purchase the product on their own.

Dark Barrel Latte

http://Photo by Andre Moura from Pexels: https://www.pexels.com/photo/white-starbucks-tumbler-2545651/

            How would you like to be able to go to Starbucks in the morning for a little hair of the dog? Well too bad, because if your Starbucks location does sell alcohol, they won’t do it in the morning. But the placebo effect is a real thing, so if you lived near a Starbucks test location in 2014-2015, the Dark Barrel Latte may have been exactly what you needed to feel like you were having that refreshing, morning beer before work. No sooner did I finish typing that sentence than I realized why this might never have made it to mass market…

            The Dark Barrel Latte was designed to taste like a stout beer, the type of beer that is known for tasting like coffee. So it was coffee that tasted like beer that tasted like coffee, which makes it really hard to believe their intended market for this product extended beyond the “barely functioning alcoholic” crowd.  The more technical description was that it was a latte with a few pumps of malty syrup, akin to the earthy notes of a stout beer. The beverage was served hot or cold, and came topped with whipped cream and caramel.

            Immediately out of the gates, the drink was met with mixed reviews at best. While a stout flavoured coffee may sound great to some, such bitter flavours were not in line with the normal Starbucks fare. A company known for seasonal favourites such as the pumpkin spice latte or the limited time unicorn frappuccino is unlikely to have a clientele that seek out a whipped cream topped Guinness in the morning.

            To truly understand the rationale behind this latte, it’s important to consider what else Starbucks was doing at the time. Much like McDonalds and the McPizza, sales were great in the morning, but dwindled later in the day. While they could have accepted that most people view coffee as a morning drink and just closed shop early to save on overhead, that’s not how capitalism works. In 2010, they had started testing a Starbucks “Evenings” program that offered beer and wine at over 400 locations near their headquarters in Seattle. When the Dark Barrel Latte began testing in 2014, they had just announced plans to expand their Evenings program to more stores across the country. With the exception of a few company owned locations, alcohol at Starbucks went away in 2017, but these lattes didn’t even make it a full year. Had everything gone according to plan, the Dark Barrel Latte was likely to serve as a bridge between beer and coffee for those that had only been a fan of one or the other previously.

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            The drink may have been considered a major misstep overall, but it was not without its fans. Within days of Starbucks pulling the drink from menus, enthusiasts were already on the internet trying to figure out how to replicate the taste at home. The simplest way would have been to pour a bottle of Guinness in a glass, then cover it in whipped cream and caramel, but these gastronomical purists were trying to keep alcohol removed from the equation.

            Ultimately, the drink itself was not a bad idea, Starbucks was just not the place for it. There are plenty of people who enjoy both coffee and stouts that would love a drink like this, but your typical Starbucks customer enjoys neither “coffee” nor stouts, opting instead for a flat white and a Pabst Blue Ribbon. Regardless of the company that could pull it off, I still have my reservations about getting people to wake up with a nice warm sip of beer.

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