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What the heck just happened to Diet Coke?

15 January, 2018

In January 2016 Coca-Cola announced a “One Brand” approach to unite the marketing of its various Cokes. All Coke Trademark brands became united in one global creative campaign – “Taste the Feeling” – and new packaging soon followed featuring a more unified Coca-Cola design

Just two years on, and Diet Coke is now going its own way. The brand has received a massive facelift, and will now come in new slimmed-down, candy-coloured cans – a different can for each of its four new flavours (Ginger Lime, Feisty Cherry, Zesty Blood Orange, Twisted Mango, as well as the classic Diet Coke flavour).

Why the sudden flip of brand strategy? Yep, you guessed it: sales of Diet Coke are falling. And the master strategy plan behind all of this = to attract millennials to the 35-year-old diet brand. To quote from Coca-Cola, “We wanted to stay true to the essence of Diet Coke while recasting the brand for a new generation.”

Good luck I say. I worked on Diet Coke in Australia over the period 2006-2008, when it was facing exactly the same challenge i.e. declining sales. Diet Coke has never been a brand for “a new generation”. It launched in 1982 to female boomers as the sugar-free (diet) alternative to Coca-Cola (remember the iconic “1.30 Appointment” TVC).

Female boomers and gen x-ers are Diet Coke’s fan base. It was they who acquired the taste for Diet Coke when there was no other sugar free alternative (from 1982 – 2005) – a taste which they still prefer over Coca-Cola to this day.

When Coca-Cola launched Coke Zero in 2005 – as the “no sugar Coca-Cola with the same taste as Coca-Cola” – this didn’t appeal to Diet Coke drinkers since they preferred the taste of Diet Coke over Coca-Cola. But then Coca-Cola weren’t trying to appeal to women when they launched Coke Zero. Coke Zero was supposed to appeal to a “new generation of young men” (“The impossible made possible”).

The strategy was that Coke Zero would be the guys’ sugar free Coca-Cola, and Diet Coke would be for the girls. Of course it didn’t work out that way at all. Young gen-x and early-millennial guys and girls turned to Coke Zero in pretty much equal measure, since none of them wanted to forfeit the “real taste of Coca-Cola”. And, of course, Diet Coke lovers just continued drinking their cola of choice, Diet Coke. (And then Coke Zero got the chop and has since been replaced with Coca-Cola Zero Sugar).

To think that Diet Coke is now going to be lapped up by millennials just because the packaging is slimmer and it has four new flavours is, in my view, a very big call. Diet Coke isn’t Coca-Cola. It has it’s own unique taste, drinking sensation, and brand identity. To the long converted, it’s their cola of choice. But why would a new generation of millennial female drinkers turn to Diet Coke? – given that their alternative today is to drink Coca-Cola Zero Sugar, a sugar free alternative that has “the great Coca-Cola taste without sugar”.

I reckon Coca-Cola are taking one heck of a gamble.

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