Have you ever wondered who makes Sunkist soda? Today we are going to discuss the meteoric rise of America’s #1 orange soda.
The pandemic has deprived us of so many things. One item that disappeared quickly from store shelves was diet Sunkist soda. I immediately wanted to hunt down who makes Sunkist soda and ask for an explanation. I felt the world would once again be in a good and stable place when diet Sunkist finally made its return to the shelves.
Every week over the past year I found myself in the grocery store doing my shopping. Each week I would casually stroll over to the soda aisle and silently hope that I would be rewarded with a special surprise. Every week my hopes were dashed.
I joked with my wife that if I saw diet Sunkist back on shelves, I wouldn’t be able to restrain myself in purchasing everything.
Well folks, last week I was cruising through Walmart quickly pounding out my shopping list when I had the small thought that I should go check the soda aisle.
Sunkist Zero is Back Baby
I started walking down the aisle approaching the distinct orange boxes of Sunkist orange soda. However, this time was different than all the other times I made this walk during the past year. Next to the orange box was a white box.
My heart rate picked up as a Sunkist logo was proudly stamped on the white packaging. Could it be true? Is diet Sunkist back on shelves? Yes!
I now had a dilemma. I was only going to be grabbing a few items, so I didn’t have a cart. My arms were also full with said items, so I didn’t have any room to load up on soda. My mind quickly raced toward a solution. Should I just drop all of my items on the floor, grab the soda, and make a run for it? No, that wouldn’t be very professional. Alas, I needed a cart.
With a sigh and a promise to be back for them, I set a new speed walking record to the front of the store to grab a cart. I then set a new record getting back to the soda aisle.
When I reached the aisle I was shocked to find other people there. My heart jumped into my throat. What if they already grabbed the last few boxes of Sunkist?
There were some people standing very close to the Sunkist zero. Shoot! If they spot it, they will buy it for sure. I had to play it cool. This meant I couldn’t sprint to the soda or they would cut me off. I pretended like I was going for the Diet Pepsi and then did a last minute course correction to the Sunkist. True to my promise I bought all of the Sunkist zero that they had on hand. It was only two boxes, but I still bought it all.
I then floated to the front of the store, made my purchase, and schemed the whole way home on how I could get these ice cold the fastest.
If you haven’t pieced things together yet, in honor of Sunkist zero finding its way back to store shelves, I am going to do a deep dive into the history of America’s #1 orange soda.
Sunkist Growers: The Rise of the Farm Co-op
To this day I have fond memories of Sunkist oranges at Christmas time. My mom would buy a big box of them and keep them in our furnace room in the basement. It was cold enough down there to help them last long enough to finish the box. Many of our Christmas decorations are still stored in old Sunkist orange boxes.
So how did the Sunkist Growers get their start? Well in 1893 a man named Edward L. Dreher formed the Southern California Fruit Exchange. They were headquartered in Claremont, California.
Originally they only supported growers of oranges. However, In 1896 lemon growers began joining as well. By 1905 this small group of growers had swelled to a co-op of over 5,000 members throughout Southern California. They represented 45% of the entire citrus industry in California. This was when they rebranded with a new name, the California Fruit Growers Exchange, or CFGE. In 1952 they rebranded again to Sunkist Growers, Inc.
Today they are a citrus co-op that has 6,000 members from California to Arizona. In 1991 their sales hit $956 million. They are the largest fresh produce shipper in the United States and they have the most diverse citrus portfolio of any citrus growing operation.
The Early Years of Sunkist
In the early 1900s, the California citrus industry had, what some would consider, a great problem. They were producing far more fruit than what was being consumed.
In 1907, CFGE began to be pioneers in marketing a perishable commodity on a large scale. They marketed oranges to Iowans by calling them healthy and summery. The result was a 50% increase in orange sales in the state.
1907 was also the year that they launched the Sunkist brand. The Lord & Thomas ad agency originally wanted it to use “Sun-kissed” to describe the oranges but eventually settled on Sunkist. Their rationale was that it would be easier to defend as a trademark if the campaign actually went somewhere.
CFGE took another step to ensure that people could easily identify Sunkist oranges. They began wrapping each orange in paper that was stamped with the Sunkist brand.
Sunkist Protects Their Brand
In 1909 CFGE learned that merchants were selling non-Sunkist oranges as Sunkist. So in an effort to stop this bad behavior, the company created a new promotion. Their offer? Mail us 12 Sunkist wrappers from our oranges, and we will mail you a Sunkist branded spoon. People went crazy for this promotion. That year 1 million spoons were claimed. If I’m doing my math right that means that they sold at least 12 million oranges that year.
This was a brilliant campaign. Customers wanted Sunkist oranges and as a result, merchants were forced to meet demand by leaving the oranges in the Sunkist wrappers so that they would be easier to identify. People now associated Sunkist with quality citrus.
A side effect of this promotion was that in 1910, Sunkist became the largest purchaser of cutlery. The marketing success of these early campaigns led Sunkist to advertise even more aggressively. In the following years you would see ads on streetcars, billboards, radio, pamphlets, magazines, and doctors offices. Sunkist wanted consumers to stop viewing the humble orange as a Christmas luxury and instead as something vital for good health.
By 1914 Americans were consuming an average of 40 oranges per person per year. That was an 80% increase over 1885.
Today Sunkist has licensed its name out to various brands. Over the years there have been over 600 different products that have licensed the Sunkist trademark. One of those is central to today’s topic, Sunkist soda.
So Who Makes Sunkist Soda?
In the early 1900s, Sunkist was very successful in convincing Americans that oranges were healthy. Truth is, they are! An orange is full of nutrients that would make any of our bodies grateful. In their quest to find more uses for oranges, Sunkist decided to put the soda industry in their crosshairs.
In addition to the marketing of the fruit itself, Sunkist began to aggressively market orange juice and lemonade as a healthier alternative to “artificial” beverages like Coca Cola. It was an easy sell. Coca Cola doesn’t have anything natural in it, but look at my orange juice, all it has is an orange in it.
By the 1930s, one in every five Sunkist oranges was being consumed in juice form. It was often found at soda fountains. In fact, Sunkist juice was the second most popular soda fountain drink after Coca Cola. The marketing wizards had done it again.
It is important to note, that what was being consumed in the early 1900s was not like the Sunkist orange soda that we have today. Different soda fountains may have added additional ingredients, but for the most part it was just orange juice made with Sunkist oranges. So how did this highly natural alternative to soda make the leap to the neon orange soft drink we know and love today?
General Cinema Corporation Gets Into Orange Soda
Sunkist licensed their name to General Cinema Corporation for a new soda. At the time General Cinema was the largest independent Pepsi bottler. They had done extensive research and discovered that orange flavored soda was the third most popular soda flavor worldwide. This was largely due to the Coca Cola Fanta brand.
In 1977 and 1978 the concept was put through an extensive R&D effort. They researched the perfect taste, color, and carbonation levels. When they were happy that they had perfected the recipe, they released to the general public.
The formula was franchised to leading Coca Cola and Pepsi bottlers. By 1980 they had become the top orange soda in the United States. They also ranked tenth on the list of top ten sodas in the United States.
Where We Are Today
One aspect of Sunkist orange soda that makes it unique is that it contains caffeine. There are 19 mg of caffeine in each can. In 2010 they had to recall a batch of Sunkist after they accidentally mixed in six times the normal amount of caffeine.
In 1984, Sunkist orange soda made the typical bounce of acquisitions that a soda will take. They were acquired by Del Monte before being bounced to Cadbury Schweppes. Today it is produced by Keurig Dr Pepper.
A couple of fun facts, the Australian version of Sunkist orange soda is caffeine free. In Canada they sell a caffeine free version that is called C’Plus that actually contains a small portion of real Sunkist juice. I’m going to have to hunt for some of that.
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