If you were asked to name a soft drink, odds are a Coke or Pepsi might come the most readily to mind—but what about orange soda brands? As the soft drinks category innovates and gains traction, we’re exploring the origins of this zesty beverage, the world’s top brands, and how orange soda continues to change what the world is drinking.
The World’s First Orange Soda
The “original orange soda”—Orange Crush—was created in 1906 by Chicago’s J.M. Thompson; however, the commercial formula wouldn’t take off until 1911, when California-born beverage chemist Neil C. Ward perfected the blending process. It was this innovation that would ultimately bring the “zesty, all-natural orange flavor” of Orange Crush to the masses.
Soon after upgrading the initial formula, Ward joined forces with Clayton J. Howel and founded the Orange Crush Company in 1916. A beverage innovator himself, Howel brought his expertise from developing “Howel’s Orange Julep” (an orange syrup) to the partnership. As the inventor of the improved Orange Crush, Ward received the honor of having his name featured on the bottle—a common practice for early soft drink brands. The “crush” part of “Ward’s Orange Crush” was kept in the name to refer to the process of extracting oils from orange skins to achieve the drink’s signature flavor.
At the time, orange pulp—without the juice—was added to the recipe, and in 1921, real juice was finally introduced. Nearly a decade later, the decision was made to remove the real orange juice and pulp and instead utilize more shelf-stable flavor compounds to achieve the same great taste.
Within only a few years, Crush became so successful in the US market that the company expanded distribution to Canada. Two new flavors, lemon and lime, were introduced to the brand in 1919 and 1920, respectively, paving the way for a flood of additional flavors to emerge in the coming years.
Flavors like chocolate, blue raspberry, banana, and even red licorice have all been a part of the Crush portfolio; however, Crush now focuses on promoting staple flavors like grape, strawberry, and cherry alongside its signature orange. While still popular in Canada and other parts of the world, Crush, owned by Keurig Dr Pepper has become a smaller scale offering in the US market.
In general, orange soda seems to be more of a favorite abroad. But truth be told, there is another brand consumers tend to gravitate towards—and it has a much more tumultuous origin story.
“Another Man’s Trash” Becomes… A German Soft Drink?
If “necessity is the mother of invention” then Max Keith must be the father. As the head of Coca-Cola’s German operation in the 1930s, Keith brought prosperity to the formerly struggling branch; in fact, at the time, the Coca-Cola business in Germany was one of the world’s most successful, second only to the company’s sales in the US. Everything changed with the beginning of World War II.
In 1939, Coca-Cola had 43 bottling plants and over 600 local distributors across Germany—but with the outbreak of the war, there was no way to get the ingredients needed from the US to make Coca-Cola products. Enter, Fanta.
Keith was determined to continue business as usual, despite not being able to have any contact with the Atlanta-based headquarters. The company needed a product to sell, so he created one—an exclusively German soft drink. Utilizing the leftovers from other food industries (like fruit pulp and cheese whey) plus saccharin for sweetness, Keith created a pale golden soft drink and called it “Fanta” after the German word “fantasie.”
The drink was a hit and quickly became a household staple; especially when food shortages prompted German families to adopt Fanta as a base for soups and stews. At the end of the war, international business could resume. Despite being a profitable enterprise in Germany, production of Fanta was stopped and replaced once again by regular Coca-Cola. That was the end of the Fanta brand—at least for a little while.
How A WWII Soft Drink Became A Global Favorite
Fast forward to the 1950’s. Competitor Pepsi had started rolling out a variety of new drink flavors, while Coca-Cola’s business remained focused on selling their single, iconic product. In an effort to better compete, Coca-Cola revisited the Fanta brand and reformulated the recipe for the European market. In 1955, the new Fanta was released in Naples, Italy, using local citrus to achieve a bright and juicy orange flavor. Modern versions of Fanta Orange have since evolved from this recipe.
The drink quickly became a hit across Europe, but executives were cautious about releasing the new product in the US. Fearing that it would cannibalize sales of their signature product, Coca-Cola eventually chose to roll out Fanta Orange to the US market in the 1960s. But with little support (and marketing dollars) the US release was less successful.
Fanta Orange continued to reap slow sales in the US until the mid-1980s when Coca-Cola made the decision to pull the plug on nationwide distribution. Finding a niche consumer group for the product, the company allowed the product to remain available in regions with large immigrant populations who would be familiar with it.
In 2001, Coca-Cola gave it another shot. Fanta Orange went national in the US again, and this time, the roll out was supported by a much more aggressive marketing campaign. Moving up from its previously negligible sales volume in the early 90s, Fanta is now among the top 10 soft drinks in the US—and the world. Over the last decade, Fanta has achieved a US market share of just under 3% in 2019 and in 2020, it became the only orange soda brand to make it onto Statista’s list of the “Most Valuable Soft Drink Brands Worldwide.”
With more than 90 flavors available worldwide, it’s evident that Fanta really shines in the international space—of course, the most popular flavor will likely always be orange. As beverage trends continue to support nostalgic flavors as well as profiles that provide freshness and perceived sweetness, there is an opportunity for orange soda to experience continued revival. Bubbly, juicy, bright, and sweet—orange soda is a beverage classic that dazzles the taste buds and continues to change what the world is drinking.
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