Coke must have a lot of free time on their hands these days, because they sure are keeping the designers of packaging busy. Maybe they would find more success if they would spend more time making products people actually wanted instead of just marketing the same junk over and over. But I digress…
Last year, Diet Coke was the #3 best selling soft drink, behind regular Coke and Pepsi. Farther down the Top 10 list you find that Caffeine Free Diet Coke also performed strong, coming in at #8. It’s no argument that Diet Coke is a strong brand. Industry publication Beverage Digest reports that “the biggest trend last year was the accelerated growth of the diet sodas.”
The editor feels that the diet category could actually surpass the regular soda category in about 12 to 15 years. That’s pretty amazing. Based on those figures, it’s no surprise that Coke seems to be rebranding many of their beverages to take advantage of the strong “Diet Coke” brand.
Part of this effort is moving products from a weaker brand to now sit below the strong Diet Coke brand. This is happening to both Diet Cherry Coke and Diet Vanilla Coke, which now become Diet Coke Cherry and Diet Coke Vanilla. In addition to this shift, Coke is color-classifying all of their diet drinks with a certain image scheme. We’ve seen hints of this with Coke with Lime and Diet Coke with Lemon already. But now it’s becoming far more obvious. Each of Coke’s 9 diet products seem to now reflect a certain color, highlighted in the banding on the label. Here’s the breakdown of the products, with the colors and year of launch noted…
1982 – Diet Coke – White
1983 – Caffeine Free Diet Coke – White w/Gold
1986 – Diet Coke Cherry – Dark Red
2001 – Diet Coke with Lemon – Yellow
2002 – Diet Coke Vanilla – Beige
2004 – Diet Coke with Lime – Green
2004 – Coca-Cola C2 – Silver
2005 – Diet Coke Sweetened with Splenda – Blue
2005 – Coca-Cola Zero – Black
Now, while this branding of most of Coke’s diet drinks under the “Diet Coke” banner may make marketing sense, I personally feel that the customer is going to be awfully confused. I mean, is a general person going to note the difference between Diet Coke and Diet Coke Sweetened with Splenda? What’s the difference between Coca-Cola C2 and Coca-Cola Zero? Which products contain aspertame and which don’t? Are there blends of artificial sweeteners being used?
Interestingly enough, part of what may be driving Diet Coke’s new branding may be the success of Diet Rite, which has seen a resurgence in popularity. This is primarily due to the low-carb craze, which suddenly noticed Diet Rite’s abundance of flavors, use of Splenda, lack of aspertame, and had no calories, sodium, or caffeine. I know my mom particularly enjoys this product from Cadbury Schweppes.
What’s odd about Coke’s decision-making here is that they will now have no less than 4 different diet cola formulations (if you factor in the regionally-available Tab). And frankly, it gets confusing!
Formulation #1: Tab
First, the oddball drink, Tab. This was the first diet drink made by Coke, released in 1963.
Initially sweetened by saccharin, the FDA later banned its use, which resulted in the drink being sweetened by aspertame. However, the ban was lifted in 1991 and Tab returned to its original saccharin formula. Some people prefer Tab because it does not have the same aftertaste that Diet Coke possesses.
Formulation #2: Diet Coke et al
Most folks don’t know that Diet Coke isn’t a diet version of Coca-Cola Classic. In actuality, it shares the same formula as New Coke/Coke II. Yup, it’s true!
In the early 1980′s, Coke was losing market share and discovered via research that customers preferred the sweeter taste of Pepsi. Thus, when they launched Diet Coke in 1982, the formula used aspertame (branded as NutraSweet) and was tweaked to be sweeter.
Later, the company took the Diet Coke formula, replaced the aspertame with high fructose corn syrup, and launched “New” Coke on April 23, 1985… creating one of the largest marketing and public relations debacles in history. Three months later, the original formula returned to the shelves as Coca-Cola Classic, while New Coke died off.
However, New Coke saw a rebirth in 1992 as “Coke II” until it was finally phased out in North America. Interestingly, that same New Coke-based formula is still used to this day and can be found in Diet Coke, Caffeine Free Diet Coke, Diet Coke Cherry, Diet Coke with Lemon, Diet Coke Vanilla, and Diet Coke with Lime.
Formulation #3: Coke C2
In 2004, Coke C2 rolled out with a formula that broke from the established Diet Coke tradition. This one used a blend of corn syrup and 3 sweeteners: aspertame, sucralose, and acesulfame potassium (also known as Ace-K).
It tasted nothing like Coke or Diet Coke. Frankly, it just tasted bad.
Interestingly, the formula is a diet version of the Coke Classic formula, whereas the formula for Diet Coke is actually a diet version of New Coke/Coke II, thus there is a big difference in taste.
Overall, I think this isn’t a great marketing move by Coke. It causes lots of confusion to the customer. The diet beverage market is way too splintered, resulting in one version not dominating and most likely, failures of many of these new brands. Pepsi has already discontinued Pepsi Edge because of poor performance; Coke C2 can’t be that far behind.
Will many Diet Coke drinkers decide to move over to Diet Coke Sweetened with Splenda? I think not. So who is the audience they are targeting there? As I mentioned in my review of that product, I think that this is just setting up a future formula change for Diet Coke. Non-Diet Coke drinkers who are looking for something that tastes like Coke probably aren’t going to be satisfied with Coke Zero because of the aspertame content and resulting aftertaste. Perhaps a better idea would have been to just release a Splenda-sweetened version of the original Coca-Cola Classic formula. Keep it simple, for Pete’s sake!
I think Pepsi got it right when it came to positioning their diet drinks. They left Diet Pepsi alone and instead introduced Pepsi Edge. Then they tweaked the pre-existing brand Pepsi One by removing the aspartame and Ace-K and replacing it with Splenda. That’s it. It’s simple. And I think the marketplace can figure all this out a lot easier.
Then again, I don’t drink diet soft drinks, so who cares?