Hooray! Fresca’s back, Fresca is back. At least back at the Jewel in Northbrook. In liter bottles, at first, and now in the way God intended: cans.
And no, I did not clear the shelves. The sign said “Two for $4” and I limited myself to two of the big green plastic bottles and then, on my next visit, two 12-packs of cans. Why deny others the joy of slugging back that cool, grapefruitish non-calorie beverage?
For those whose attention has wandered — understandable, between raging pandemic and erosion of every institution and value Americans once held dear — it was late June that I hesitatingly asked: “What happened to Fresca?”
That column exploded. I heard from frustrated Fresca drinkers all over the country.
“I couldn’t find it anywhere in/around Sacramento CA and even called the local distributor who gave me no information, no call back, zero,” explained Rebecca Weaver.
“Here in the Dallas, Texas area, my husband and I covered a 20-mile radius searching for it,” commiserated Jamey Garner-Yeric.
“After a fruitless search today in Charleston, SC, I found your article on the internet,” wrote John Shilling.
Six weeks later, an update seems in order. I put in another query to Coca-Cola. But given their laggard response last time, I decided to hedge my bets and reached out to academia.
Two instructors at Northwestern’s Medill clamped a perfumed hankie to their lips and fled, shrieking. But Ron Culp, a fearless professor in the PR and advertising department at broad-shouldered DePaul University, rolled up his sleeves and leapt in.
“They obviously are trying to protect the brand during a time of shortage,” said Culp, noting that Coke’s vagueness is not a flaw but a feature.
“They don’t want people to not look for it,” he said. “What they won’t do is say, ‘We’re circling the wagons around Coke.’”
That would give the game away to Fresca fans: Our beloved beverage is a rounding error in Coke World, the red-headed stepchild, first to be tossed over the side when the boat is in trouble.
“They’re not willing to jeopardize Fresca by saying, ‘We don’t feel Fresca is important as what you might expect us to feel,’” he said. “They try not to offend brand evangelists by saying, ‘Sorry, can you switch over for the time being to Sprite?’”
Vamsi Kanuri, assistant professor of marketing at Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business, added that seeking candor from a corporation can be futile.
“You’re never going to get that out of a big company,” Kanuri said. “It makes sense, their being ambiguous. This is a niche brand. Still, they should be upfront. If they came out and said, ‘We are dealing with a shortage. We have to prioritize some brands. Be patient with us,’ consumers would be more understanding than with Coke having to deal with Fresca after your story was such a big hit and people are reacting to it.”
Indeed. Coca-Cola was a changed company this time. Gone is the elusive and enigmatic Erin Russ. In her place Kate Hartman, a wily Edelman vet, answering questions with buoyant candor.
“So happy you found some Fresca at Jewel!” wrote Hartman, a Coke group director, tapped to clear up the Fresca mess.
The problem was cans.
“The industry-wide aluminum can shortage is the main issue causing distribution and production delays for Fresca,” she wrote, in a sentence whose clarity would draw praise from a Medill professor if, you know, they actually said stuff.
“The majority of Fresca sales — and therefore available packaging — is in aluminum cans. Given the shortage and the brand skewing toward that packaging type in market, production, distribution and availability of Fresca have been impacted.
“That said, we understand that consumers who drink and love Fresca miss the brand and are looking for it in stores,” she continued. “We’re doing everything we can to get Fresca back on shelves as quickly as possible, including working with our bottling partners to find different packaging options.”
Unlike much that gives life savor — sports, school, government that doesn’t make you cringe — Fresca should return in force when the leaves change.
“We’re hopeful that markets that have experienced Fresca distribution issues will see the product back on shelves this fall,” said Hartman, born and raised in Chicago.
See? There is good news in the world.