The Return of SURGE: Case Study

We all love social media, but it’s so ingrained in our lives now that sometimes we forget just how powerful it can be. It connects us. It gives us all a voice. Of course it can be used to help sell products, but can it bring them back from the dead? For one small group of friends who had never met each other, it certainly did.

What is SURGE?

SURGE was a soda brand released in early 1997 by The Coca-Cola Company and discontinued in 2003. Being heavily marketed upon release, its purpose was to put a large dent in America’s citrus market; notably, to turn consumers away from Pepsi’s Mountain Dew and provide the nation with a bold and irreverent, yet tasty alternative. Bright green in color, SURGE was described as a “Fully Loaded Citrus Soda with Carbos,” meaning it boasted a blend of bold citrus flavors and maltodextrin (a less sweet carbohydrate), which when combined with its low carbonation, produced a bold yet smooth taste. SURGE caught on quickly and was initially available in 60% of the nation, spreading to 90% by early 1998.

SURGE was released in an era before energy drinks were mainstream (before Red Bull, etc.) and was advertised with “Extreme Lifestyle” marketing that featured many recognizable commercials, often featuring intense races to a single SURGE.

 

 

Source: 1997 SURGE Soda Commercial on YouTube

SURGE quickly became an iconic brand, so much that 97% of teens were aware of SURGE in the initial launch markets and 95% had tried it at least once, based on internal consumer research. However, in April of 1998, Sergio Zyman, (the head of Coca-Cola’s marketing department) resigned from his post and the reigns were handed over to Charles S. Frenette, a man generally seen as having the complete opposite approach to marketing. The very next month, Coke’s stocks reached their peak and began to plummet. Unfortunately, SURGE began to see a decrease in sales which continued until 2003 when Coca-Cola decided to cease all of its production.

Leading up to the discontinuation were rising rumors of SURGE’s supposed “adverse effects.” While false rumors of high caffeine and sugar levels spread, entire schools began to ban the soda from vending machines and many parents stopped buying SURGE for their children. (In all actuality, SURGE had less caffeine and even less sugar than Mountain Dew, its primary competitor). As the grandfather of all extreme marketing, experts agree that SURGE was a beverage “before its time.” Coca-Cola decided against a reformed marketing plan, despite continuous efforts of its passionate fan base. Throughout the years, that passion never died and fans remained unrelenting in its return, but a platform to “come together” was needed.

SURGE Meets Social Media

In December of 2011, Evan Carr of San Jose, CA founded the SURGE Movement on Facebook, shortly before bringing on Matt Winans of Fargo, ND (who had offered to help on a video promotion and led Facebook’s SURGE Soda page with over 8,000 fans) and Sean Sheridan of Murphy, TX (a very respectable community helper and IT technician). From then on, they were a team; with a wide variety of skill sets, it was time to buckle down.

Through the power of social media and pure grassroots strategy, the SURGE Movement community and its administration coordinated their efforts with a goal of influencing The Coca-Cola Company to reverse their decision and bring SURGE back to the market. Little did they know, this first mission would only be the start of an extreme lifestyle journey of their own.

The Demand

This administration trio worked tirelessly for years to bring back a soda that they all missed dearly. But their job wasn’t to create demand – it was already there. Their job was to connect and lead a fast growing community.

It didn’t take long for the Movement to pick up steam. Soon, the page was averaging around 1,000 new fans per month, with occasional surges (pun intended) of up to 5,000. And all of this was done through word of mouth. That’s the most unique part about this movement. In the early days, the guys had no advertising budget so every new fan was organic. This is relatively unheard of for any group using Facebook at this scale to generate a following. The results were in: the people wanted SURGE back in their lives and Carr, Winans and Sheridan were there to facilitate.

The Billboard

In September of 2012, the Movement needed to do something a little more drastic. At 11,000 fans, the admins created a crowdsourcing campaign through Indiegogo to fund a billboard with the tagline, “Tell Coke you want it back in the loudest way possible!” They raised just over their goal of $3,745 as the campaign closed on January 5th, 2013 and the billboard was set up a month later, just a half-mile away from Coca-Cola HQ with a very clear message. The billboard played a critical role in gaining new media attention and though it was an early feat, it forever became an iconic milestone in SURGE Movement history.

SURGE Coke Days

The Movement’s Facebook page made regular requests for fans to get in touch with Coca-Cola’s customer service hotline to request that they bring back the cult-classic soda. Doing this en masse eventually became known as “SURGE Coke” days. This started a trend of organized call days within the movement. This passion evolved into a monthly Facebook event that encouraged fans to contact Coca-Cola as a team to make product requests for the revival of SURGE. The grassroots effort created a new sense of community centered on lighting up Coke’s phone lines and reporting back to the event page with their results (e.g. Customer Service Rep Tim answered my call and said that Coke has no plans of ever reviving SURGE Soda).

The idea of making the “call days” an organized event gave the Movement’s supporters something special to look forward to, while ensuring that they would generate new callers each month as the Movement continued to engage classic soda drinkers via their organic outreach on Facebook.

Other Early SURGE Movement Achievements:

  • Accumulated 125k SURGE fans in the first two years.
  • Fundraised the redistribution of four SURGE fountain syrup boxes into 525 two-ounce vials to 322 households around the nation for $20 each.
  • Utilized over $6,000 in raised proceeds for Facebook Page Like and Post Engagement advertising which allowed for much further reach on the community.
  • Featured on front page of prominent news sites such as CNN Money, Buzzfeed, Business Insider and Yahoo! News.

The Return

Then on April 16th, 2014 it happened! The SURGE Movement admins were the first in the public to get the message, and directly from Coca-Cola President J.A.M (Sandy) Douglas:

With the Movement already at 128,000 fans and growing steadily, the demand was clear. The wheels were set in motion, and Coca-Cola soon after made the announcement of SURGE’s imminent return to the marketplace. At first, SURGE was available exclusively through Amazon and the demand was so high that it sold out instantly. This trend continued for a while. Amazon would put SURGE on their website. SURGE would sell out. Rinse. Repeat.

The return of SURGE set many company records for The Coca-Cola Company’s 1886 history:

  • The First Only Digital/Social Launch of a Product
  • The First E-commerce Launch
  • The First Re-launch of a Discontinued Brand

On Amazon, SURGE also immediately became:

  • The #1 Best Selling Grocery Item
  • The #1 Best Selling Soft Drink on Prime Pantry

Today, the SURGE Movement has grown to over 223,000 fans and shows no indication of stopping. This year, Coca-Cola initiated a test run in the southeast that verified the modern-day demand. Now, it is time for the nation to truly prove themselves. Starting next week after Labor Day ’15, SURGE will now be available to over 1/3rd of the nation!

The Coca-Cola Company has big plans for the SURGE brand and is working hard to keep up with demand while increasing distribution. The SURGE Movement was able to bring this beloved beverage back from the dead purely through the use of social networking, and for that we salute them!

As this success story continues to unfold, the SURGE Movement asks for all SURGE fans to JOIN THE EFFORT in making the brand a sustainable modern-day sensation!

We would like to extend a HUGE thanks to the admins of the SURGE Movement for helping us out on this study. SURGE on, guys!

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Chance Kellar

Chance Kellar

Chance is a Community Manager here at Sociality Squared. In his other lives he has been a chef, pilot, and a first responder at Mt. Hood, Oregon. No, not at the same time. That would be dangerous.