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So long, Sierra Mist. Hello Starry. Have we met before?

Pepsi replaced Sierra Mist with Starry, and it tastes awfully familiar.  (Scott Suchman for The Washington Post)
By Emily Heil Washington Post

Sometimes, when a company discontinues a beloved food, fans take to the social-media streets, lamenting the loss or even petitioning the cruel corporate gods for its return.

But there was little uproar when Pepsi last month stopped making its lemon-lime soda, Sierra Mist, and replaced it with a new version called Starry – also flavored with lemon-lime, but this time geared to Gen Z, a thirsty bid for younger customers by the also-ran soda company and a patently clear bid to try to muscle in on the success of Coca-Cola’s Sprite.

While few mourned Sierra Mist – the soda had captured only 0.1% of the soda-market share to Sprite’s 7% – Pepsi’s marketing campaign aimed to position Starry as a fresh-faced cool kid on the shelf. The drink is geared to “a consumer who is simultaneously optimistic about the future and brings a sense of irreverence to their everyday,” per the marketing materials. “Starry is bright, optimistic, and rooted in culture and fun.”

Mmmm, OK, boomer, but what does it taste like? The company promised “a game-changing recipe with the perfect balance of lemon lime flavor and sweetness compared to the competition.”

To test that claim, we snagged some cans of Sierra Mist before they disappeared from the Earth forever, and tasted it alongside its replacement, Starry. And for fun, we also sampled Sprite, the Coca-Cola product with which Starry is designed to compete.

After only a few sips, it immediately became clear that this was no rebrand – that is, Pepsi didn’t just slap a new label on Sierra Mist and call it a day (though some TikTokers suspected that was the case). We found Starry to be decidedly different from its predecessor. For one thing, it’s noticeably less sweet, which is a good thing. (Sierra Mist was made with real sugar, while Starry uses high-fructose corn syrup.) Because it was less cloying, Starry’s citrus flavor read cleaner and crisper than in the older formula. Sharper bubbles came through in the Starry, too.

The next-gen swap seems to address Sierra Mist’s split-personality problem. And for that, let’s take a little trip down a citrus-lined memory lane: Pepsi introduced Sierra Mist in 1999, replacing Slice (remember that?) to better compete with Sprite and 7UP. But the product also seemed to ape Pepsi’s other long-standing lemon-lime offering, Mountain Dew. After all, “sierra” is Spanish for “mountain” – and, as one Redditor put it, “dew is just resting mist.”

Sierra Mist never really caught on, and it underwent a number of tweaks throughout its history – in 2015, it was briefly renamed “Mist Twst” – before Pepsi decided to pull the plug on it this year.

And here’s the ironic thing (wait, does Gen Z even do irony or is that reserved for Xers?): Starry’s tagline might be “It hits different,” but the new soda actually comes across as almost identical … to its rival, Sprite. As we tasted the two side by side, they were almost indistinguishable. Maybe the Starry had a touch more of bright lime, particularly at the finish?

We also sampled the zero-sugar versions of Starry and Sprite, which contain aspartame. Though I admit, I have difficulty judging diet drinks because artificial sugars scramble my taste buds, it seemed that these two diverged more than their real-sugared siblings – the Starry seemed a bit less sweet (again, a good thing in my book) with a bite that helped offset the fake-sugar chemical twang.

In the ongoing soda wars, getting rid of the underperforming Sierra Mist and replacing it with a Sprite taste-alike was probably a no-brainer strategy for Pepsi. “It probably makes sense to discontinue the brand and then maybe try something else that’s new to the market, which consumers tend to like,” Wedbush Securities analyst Gerald Pascarelli, told USA Today. “It’s a low risk move.”

Novelty, after all, has its appeal – and Starry’s labeling has the kind of clean-lined emoji-adjacent graphic design that might catch the fickle eye of youth. But just how far will it take the newcomer? The kind of consumers the brand is hoping to attract might just identify with a line from Taylor Swift’s “Hits Different” – a track Pepsi’s marketing wizards no doubt encountered when dreaming up the tagline – when it comes to brand loyalty: “Movin’ on was always easy for me to do.”