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Meet the superfans trying to save Tab

New York (CNN Business) In October 2020, the moment Trish Priest had been dreading arrived: Tab, the decades-old diet drink, was being killed off by parent company Coca-Cola.

What to some was a mere news blip was a crisis for Priest.

"I lived in fear of it being discontinued for years," she said. "When the notification came out that Coca-Cola was going to stop making it, I had people I hadn't spoken to in 10 years call me to give me their condolences."

Priest drinks about three cans of Tabs a day, and has for as long as she can remember. "It is a central part of my life," she said, and something she's known for. "I've had [colleagues] decorate my office for a milestone birthday" with Tab-themed decorations, and "I drink Tab, water and wine."

Priest started stockpiling cases of Tab in 2020 when she realized the drink would soon be gone. She has 23 12-packs left, and she's rationing her supply. She'll hang onto the final case "for posterity."

But Priest isn't giving up without a fight. She's hoping that with the help of fellow diehard fans, they'll convince Coca-Cola to bring Tab back.

Trish Priest in Tab gear.

It will be a tough battle, as Coca-Cola which has its reasons for killing Tab. The product was cut as part of a sweeping reduction of Coca-Cola's beverage portfolio, announced in 2020. The reasoning was clear: The 200 brands on the chopping block — half of Coke's portfolio — together made up just 2% of Coca-Cola's total revenue, CEO James Quincey said. It just wasn't worth it for to keep pouring resources into these flagging products.

"It was a hard decision to discontinue TaB," a company spokesperson told CNN Business. "In order to continue to innovate and give consumers the choices they want, we have to make tough choices about our portfolio."

The spokesperson said that "there are no plans to bring [Tab] back."

Tab fans think Coke made the wrong call. From where they sit, Tab sales were stilted because Coca-Cola neglected the brand, letting it linger without advertising for decades. They point out that even without ads, Tab fans have still sought out the product — imagine, they say, what some marketing could do. Plus, nostalgia is hot right now.

It may be hard to imagine a massive company like Coke giving in to a comparatively small fanbase of a forgotten brand. But it's happened before.

The SaveTabSoda committee

Coca-Cola announced in 2020 that it would discontinue Tab.

Adam Burbach noticed a flurry of activity online after Coke announced Tab's demise. Across social channels, fans were mourning the product and wondering whether they could change Coca-Cola's decision.

"A lot of people [were] saying, we should do something," he said. "The initial ... thought behind the committee was coordinating efforts so that we had a single voice."

Burbach took action. He launched a full-blown campaign to bring back the soda along with a core group of fans, including Priest, that calls themselves the SaveTabSoda Committee. The group has coordinated call days, encouraging fans to bombard Coca-Cola's customer service line with (polite) phone calls and to send notes to Coca-Cola's leadership team.

"We appreciate the passionate legion of Tab lovers who have reached out and who embraced the brand for nearly six decades," the company spokesperson said.

Coke's top brass has taken notice: In an interview with CNN Business late last year, CEO James Quincey said he's gotten "a lot of emails about Tab."

A petition to bring back Tab has garnered nearly 1,100 signatures, and the committee is currently raising money for billboards in Coke's home city, Atlanta, that will blast its message to passing motorists and any Coke executives who drive by.

The efforts so far have been fruitless — Coca-Cola (KO) has given no indication it will bring Tab back. But the company does have a history of listening to its fans. Most notably, it quickly reversed course on New Coke in 1985 after fans railed against the new recipe.

There's a big difference between paying attention to feedback on Coke, Coca-Cola's signature product, and something like Tab. But Coca-Cola has changed course on fringe products, too.

Surge makes a comeback

Coca-Cola introduced Surge to the market in 1997 as a competitor to Mountain Dew and pulled it six years later. Bereft Surge fans wanted it back, and years later, in 2011, a group of social media enthusiasts decided to help.

Meanwhile, Matt Winans had created a Surge page on Facebook in the early days of the platform so he could "like" the soda, and eventually the page gathered thousands of fans. Winans spotted the "Surge Movement" and reached out to its founder to see if he'd like to be a page administrator.

"We joined forces and the rest is pretty much history," Winans said.

Winans and others worked for years to bring Surge back. Like Tab fans, they wrote letters and scheduled call-ins. They spent money on Facebook ads. And in 2014, Coca-Cola brought Surge back in a limited capacity in what the company spokesperson called a "business decision." Surge was discontinued in bottles and cans as part of the October 2020 purge, but is still available in some restaurants.

With Surge's success in mind, Burbach tapped Winans to talk strategy on Tab.

"He wanted to know exactly what we did bring it back," said Winans, who thinks Burbach and his team have a good shot.

"Both [Tab and Surge] are retro, both have cemented themselves as pop culture icons, both have that intrinsic cult following," Winans said. His advice? "SaveTab should keep up the hard work."

What's next for Save Tab

Jenny Boyter poses with a can of Tab.

If Coca-Cola won't bring Tab back, the fans have backup plans.

"I have a box of [Diet Coke] syrup and a SodaStream, which is going to be my fallback solution," said Priest. As Burbach's supply dwindles, he's switched to some Mountain Dew zero-sugar products (Mountain Dew is owned by PepsiCo (PEP)).

Jenny Boyter, a committee member who estimates she sent about 25 letters to Coke and made a video celebrating Tab, says she'll switch to Diet Pepsi, Diet Dr Pepper or iced tea.

But she's holding out for the best-case scenario. "My plan is for Coke to say, 'Let me just pull the truck up and deliver more Tab to you,'" Boyter said. "That's my fantasy."

As much as Boyter wants Tab back, she's also been enjoying her committee work. "It's so fun," she said. "I feel ... really close to them."

Boyter is in it for the long haul, partially because of the connections she's made with people like Burbach and Priest.

"I would feel really guilty saying, 'I've been working on this for a couple years, it's not happening, I'm out,'" she said. "I'll still want to stay with the committee and keep on trying."

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