Fresca’s back! Mys­tery of its ab­sence solved

Chicago Sun-Times - - TOP NEWS - NEIL STEIN­BERG nstein­berg@sun­times.com | @NeilStein­berg

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.

DUBAI, United Arab Emi­rates — Tele­phone calls be­gan ring­ing Sun­day be­tween the United Arab Emi­rates and Is­rael, mark­ing the first con­crete step of a U.S.-bro­kered diplo­matic deal be­tween the na­tions that re­quired Is­rael to halt plans to an­nex land sought by the Pales­tini­ans.

Anger over the deal how­ever con­tin­ued as well, with pro­test­ers in Pak­istan crit­i­ciz­ing the UAE and Iran mak­ing new threats about the ac­cord, which will see the Emi­rates be­come only the third Arab nation to cur­rently rec­og­nize Is­rael. The UAE re­sponded by sum­mon­ing Iran’s chargé d’af­fairs to crit­i­cize ear­lier com­ments by Iran’s pres­i­dent it de­scribed as threat­en­ing.

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