The Untold Truth Of Surge

What comes to mind when you think of the 1990s? Online lists will jog your memory: mullets and boy bands, Nintendo 64 vs. Sony PlayStation, rollerblades and Pauly Shore (via Goliath). For a lot of people who went to middle school in the late 90s, the defining taste of the decade came out of a green can of Surge, Coca-Cola's citrusy answer to PepsiCo's Mountain Dew. When the Coke product was in development, it was reportedly referred to around the office as "MDK" for Mountain Dew Killer (via The Verge). Except that Coca-Cola lost the highly caffeinated, green-soda war it started with Pepsi. Surge went out of production in 2002, just five years after its introduction in the U.S. (via Men's Health). Meanwhile, as of 2018, Mountain Dew was riding high as the fourth most popular soft drink in the country (via Caffeine Informer).

But that's not where Surge's story ends. Those middle school boys from 1997 grew up, and they started a movement. If you look hard enough, you can still find your Surge fix.

Surge debuted with a Super Bowl ad but had to settle a trademark dispute first

Coca-Cola went all-in with its Surge launch, introducing consumers to the new soda in a commercial aired during Super Bowl XXXI in January 1997. Back then, a 30-second ad during the Big Game cost $1.2 million (via CNN Money). (That's a bargain compared to the $5.6 million companies paid for 30 seconds during Super Bowl LIV (via The Hollywood Reporter) in 2020.) Coca-Cola's Super Bowl spend back in 1997 was a small fraction of a $50 million ad campaign intended to lure teens away from Mountain Dew (via the Los Angeles Times).

The ad campaign almost never happened. A month before the 1997 Super Bowl, Babson Bros., makers of dairy equipment, asked a judge to block any marketing of Coke's new product because Babson had held the trademark for Surge since 1925. Babson Bros. used the name "Surge" for its automatic milking machines and, unfortunately for Coke, its green-colored industrial cleaning liquid. "We have taken steps to avoid any potential confusion in the marketplace, thereby protecting the integrity, trust and distinctiveness of our flagship brand," Babson Bros. said when it announced the deal it made with Coke to avoid a courtroom confrontation (via The Wall Street Journal). Coke and Babson Bros. kept the dollar amount of that deal to themselves. The Los Angeles Times, in any case, had fun with the story, giving it the headline, "Did the makers of Squirt have this problem?"

Surge rocketed, then fizzled

It started with $50 million and a dream, but the Surge launch ultimately fizzled. Two years after its introduction, though, and it looked like Coke's "Mountain Dew Killer" was inflicting some flesh wounds at least on its big competitor. Before Surge appeared on shelves, Mountain Dew had 80 percent of the "heavy citrus" soda market, its only real competition at that time being Coke's disappointing Mello Yello (via The New York Times). Two years later, The New York Times updated its numbers, saying Mountain Dew's share had been whittled down to about two-thirds.

But Coke wasn't satisfied. That year, 1999, the company decided to revamp its ad campaign to be less "grunge" (white, extremely active men) and more "urban" (multicultural, friendlier men). Coke was still spending big bucks on Surge marketing, with about $36 million spent in the soft drink's second year, and $40 million set aside for the new campaign in 1999, The New York Times reported.

But with the turn of the millennium, the caffeine war lost its edginess, apparently due to a lack of interest among consumers. Retailers started pulling Surge off their shelves, and the Mountain Dew Killer met its own demise in 2002 (via The Washington Post).

Fans brought Surge back

Surge's sales may not have lived up to the brand's name, but fans of the beverage anointed it with "cult-classic" status and lobbied Coca-Cola to bring Surge back (via The Surge Movement). At first, Coke's response was to introduce in 2005 yet another high-caffeine, high-sugar Dew wannabe called Vault. Surge purists were not satisfied, however, and made another pitch to Coca-Cola after the company stopped making Vault in 2011. The Surge Movement asked its social-media followers to flood Coca-Cola's phone lines, asking to bring back Surge. Also, the movement raised nearly $4,000 to purchase billboard space one-half mile from Coke headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia. The billboard was intended specifically for Coke execs: "Dear Coke" it read, "We couldn't buy SURGE so we bought this billboard instead." A year and a half later, in 2014, Surge was back by popular demand. Coke credited Surge's fan base with convincing them to reintroduce Surge, The Washington Post reported.

The new rollout was more modest, with no TV ad campaign and online-only sales, through Amazon (via CNET). But it was a smash success. Amazon repeatedly sold out of its $14 12-packs, and nostalgic fans positively gushed over the experience of tasting Surge again.

Today, Surge is in some stores and some Burger Kings

Child of the nineties and YouTuber HeyBrittany was transported in time when she cracked open her first can of Surge in about 15 years. She remarked that the drink was the color of Nickelodeon slime. "I literally just had my life flash before my eyes," she said.

Today, Amazon still sells that 12-pack of 16-ounce cans of Surge, but they raised the price from $14 in 2014 to $32.95. The soda is also carried in convenience stores in a couple parts of the country, according to searches conducted on Coca-Cola's product locator map and information gleaned from The Surge Movement's Facebook page. Surge can be found in store coolers in the Deep South, from New Orleans to Florida, and in parts of New England.

More of the U.S. can get its Surge fix at the local Burger King, which carries Surge in those self-serve soft drink dispensers (via Delish). BK apparently offers at least three other flavors besides the standard lemon-lime: cherry, vanilla and grape (via The Impulsive Buy).

Surge's Norwegian ancestor Urge is still available

Coca-Cola didn't invent Surge out of thin air. The company's Norway division had introduced a similar beverage called Urge just one year earlier, in 1996. Norwegians apparently took to the soda better than American's did. Urge is still available in Norway and seems to be popular. This may be because Norwegians don't have to shield their eyes from Surge's neon green color, as Norway's Urge is a duller, more natural-looking orange.

A leading member of The Surge Movement got to try something on the movement's YouTube channel that's not readily available to most people: a side-by-side taste test of Urge and Surge. The taster liked Urge well enough. While he said "Surge tastes like Surge," he thought Urge was Surge-like, with a hint of Canada Dry Ginger Ale flavor. "It's not going to take the place of Surge, from my viewpoint," he said. For him, Surge is "100 percent the best soda ever to touch the feeble, mortal lips of man."