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Coke still makes Tab? You better believe it

What do you do with a consumer brand with a market share of less than 1 percent and falling?

If you're the chairman of Coca-Cola Co. and the brand is Tab, you keep it.

Once the king of diet soft drinks, Tab has been left in the dust by Diet Coke and Diet Pepsi. Coke all but ignores it, and it has no advertising and no brand manager.

Yet as other consumer-goods giants prune brands to try to improve earnings and focus on their top sellers, Coke has yet to turn off the tap on Tab. The fizzy drink in the pink can hangs on, even though the company is busy concocting new drinks to keep up with consumers' changing tastes.

The reason is customer relations. At a company that committed one of the most embarrassing marketing goofs ever when it tried to replace Coke with New Coke in 1985, satisfying even a small group of fans is important.

"It shows you care," says Douglas Daft, Coke's chairman and chief executive. "We want to make sure those who want Tab get Tab." In fact, Daft, who drinks Diet Coke, says he has told Coke executives to explore ways to sell Tab over the Internet.

As Tab hangs on, much of the credit goes to a small but vocal group of fans, and to a system that places the burden of supplying them on Coke's bottlers.

While some abhor Tab's astringent, even metallic, taste, self-described Taboholics claim their preferred drink is more refreshing than other sodas. Originally sweetened with saccharin, which was removed only last year from the U.S. government's list of human carcinogens, Tab today contains a mixture of saccharin and aspartame, the sweetener in Diet Coke.

Some fans go so far as to liken Tab's taste to a crisp Chardonnay. "Other sodas coat your tongue," says Carol Nuckolls, who drinks three cans a day. "Elixir of the Gods" is how it is described on an informal Tab Web site.

Ms. Nuckolls, a 56-year-old utility maintenance company administrator, drives 100 miles round trip from her home in Piedmont, S.C., to buy the stuff at grocery stores that sell it. A stockpile of Tab cans fills her refrigerator; more are piled on the floor beside it. Last summer, she bypassed Coke's consumer hotline and berated managers at corporate headquarters when her local stores stopped carrying it. Were Coke to stop selling Tab altogether, she says, "They'd never hear the end of it."

Cynthia Cress, who works at a furniture company in High Point, N.C., takes a stash along to picnics and parties, but refuses to offer it to guests. She even has a second refrigerator just for Tab, which she likes to drink chilled at 34 degrees.

Catering to such a crowd runs counter to the prevailing wisdom at consumer-product companies. Over the past three years, Procter & Gamble Co. has sold Spic & Span, Prell shampoo and other small brands. Both Coke andPepsiCo Inc. have killed underperforming brands.

For Coke, there is nothing to lose financially: With no promotion costs, it makes a small profit selling Tab concentrate to its bottlers. Whether an area has Tab on hand depends on those bottlers, which actually make and sell the drinks.

Under pressure to keep up with changing consumer tastes, many of them have dropped Tab over the years. U.S. sales of Tab fell 13 percent last year to 4-million unit cases, compared with 864.1-million unit cases of Diet Coke (one unit case is 24 eight-ounce servings).

It has been a long way down. Introduced in 1963, Tab was a symbol of the "me" generation. Dubbed the "beautiful drink for beautiful people," it offered indulgence without consequences. Ads featured sultry models in string bikinis.

Coke introduced Diet Coke in 1982 to spread the power of the Coke brand to a diet drink and to appeal to men as well as women. Coke tried a number of revivals of Tab in the 1980s and 1990s, including tossing in some calcium, making a clear version and positioning the drink as the brand with "sass." The efforts flopped, and Coke hasn't spent money to market the brand in at least eight years.

That doesn't matter to Tab fans. When the drink disappeared from her local supermarket shelves last May, Ms. Nuckolls was distraught. Coke bottlers she reached by phone told her they had dropped Tab because they couldn't make a profit.

"Not that many people like Tab," says Lauren Steele, a spokesman for Coca-Cola Bottling Co. Consolidated, of Charlotte, N.C., which supplies soft drinks to Ms. Nuckolls' region.

But as complaints poured in, the bottler, whose chief financial officer is a Tab fan, relented in part. It now buys Tab from a Coke bottler in Chattanooga, Tenn., and sells it to local grocery chains and other customers willing to pick up the delivery costs.

Others turn to the Web. Don Rubenstein, of Pacoima, Calif., sells about 60 cases of Tab a week on his Dr. Soda Co. Web site, despite shipping costs that can make the diet soda as pricey as champagne. One customer in Japan paid $137.62 for a single case, Rubenstein says.

Some Taboholics think it is only a matter of time before Tab makes a comeback like other cultural icons such as the VW Beetle and the Beatles.

Chris Conard thinks Tab is cool precisely because it's so hard to find. Known as Tab Man to his friends in Green Bay, Wis., the high-school senior drinks about six cans a day. He posted a "Save Tab Cola" petition on the Web, fashioned a jacket out of Tab cans and is working on the first issue of a magazine he wants to call Tab to the Bone. He says he also plans to organize a local rock concert to be called Tabstock, with a free Tab for each guest.

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