First marketed in 1961 by the Coca-Cola Company, the lemon-lime soft drink Sprite was in the late 1990s one of the fastest growing carbonated soft drinks in the United States and around the world. As of mid-1998 Sprite was the number-three soft drink in the world and the number-five soft drink brand in the United States. From 1994 to 1998 the brand experienced global doubledigit growth. This period of dramatic expansion coincided with the launch of the brand’s ad campaign ‘‘Obey Your Thirst.’’
Introduced in 1994, the ‘‘Obey Your Thirst’’ campaign—created by Lowe & Partners/SMS of New York—established Sprite’s distinct brand personality through humorous, tongue-in-cheek spots that reinforced the ‘‘trust your instincts’’ concept. The campaign aimed to speak directly to the drink’s target market, teenagers, rather than talking down to them.
From its inception ‘‘Obey Your Thirst’’ relied on the power of a 1990s trend toward ‘‘anti-advertising.’’ The commercials in this campaign parodied those for other products that used hype and image-building to appeal to consumers. ‘‘Consumers are jaded by advertising,’’ declared Lee Garfinkel, cochairman and chief creative officer at Lowe & Partners/SMS. ‘‘In order to reach certain people, advertising that doesn’t take advertising too seriously is appreciated by the consumer.’’
The ‘‘certain people’’ that Garfinkel had in mind were mostly teenagers, particularly inner city teenagers. To go along with its ads, Sprite marketers designed an aggressive marketing campaign to appeal to this demographic. Co-promotions with the National Basketball Association (NBA), including appearances by some of its emerging stars in Sprite commercials, helped erect an image for Sprite as the brand of hip, sometimes cynical young people everywhere.
Sprite started out in a niche category—lemon-lime soft drinks—but by the mid-1990s had clearly broken away and transcended into a mainstream brand. In 1994 Sprite passed the one-billion unit case mark worldwide—a significant milestone in terms of the size of the brand. An aggressive marketing strategy aimed at urban youth has been credited with Sprite’s explosive growth. Since 1994 Sprite has been the official soft drink of the NBA, a growing worldwide sports property that has been particularly popular with youth. Adding to Sprite’s appeal, its packaging was distinctive and attention getting; graphics introduced in 1994 added a crisp blue color to Sprite’s traditional green.
In 1994 Sprite retired its upbeat ad campaign ‘‘I Like the Sprite in You’’ for an edgier approach designed to appeal to Generation X. The new tag line, in its full iteration, read: ‘‘Image is nothing. Thirst is everything. Obey your thirst.’’ Among the first commercials in the campaign, targeted at teens and young adults, was one featuring basketball star Grant Hill in a parody of pretentious fashion commercials. Oddball humor, the use of basketball endorsers, and the appeal to youth culture were to remain staples of the ‘‘Obey Your Thirst’’ campaign.
By 1996 Coca-Cola USA was spending $55.7 million to advertise Sprite in the United States alone. The brand’s innovative spots helped Sprite move $1.2 billion cases worldwide that year, and the beverage zoomed to the number-four position among U.S. soft drinks. Still, the parent company looked to increase its ad budget for 1997. ‘‘The more the brand grows, the more we spend,’’ declared Sergio Zyman, Coca-Cola’s chief marketing officer, in the pages of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. In a bid to spur even further growth, Coca-Cola ordered a tune-up of the Sprite advertising strategy. In April 1997 the company unveiled five new Sprite commercials under the ‘‘Obey Your Thirst’’ rubric. The new spots, created in partnership with Lowe & Partners/SMS, were said to mark a creative new direction for the brand.
By sharpening the focus and defining Sprite’s personality—energetic, edgy, and straightforward—Sprite’s marketers made the brand more relevant to its target audience. The goal of Sprite advertising in the 1990s seemed simple—to convey that Sprite was a thirst-quenching drink with an attitude that connected with teenagers. This approach proved to be very appealing to young people who did not want to be ‘‘marketed to’’ in the traditional sense. Sprite’s commercials humorously poke fun at hard-sell tactics while focusing on one basic premise:
Sprite may not make consumers more popular, more beautiful, or even NBA superstars, but it will quench their thirst.
Sprite’s marketers designed this message to be pertinent around the world. The brand’s ‘‘edge’’ and unpretentious attitude were crafted to speak to youth in all different cultures. According to official company press materials, ‘‘Teens around the world share the desire to be able to express themselves and make their own choices. Sprite aims to encourage and represent this attitude.’’
Once considered a ‘‘niche’’ product, Sprite in the 1990s was no longer viewed as competing in the lemon-lime category but rather as competing against other mainstream soft drinks. In fact, Sprite sales surpassed those of its principal lemon-lime competitor, 7-Up, in 1993. But there still was one niche market that Sprite advertisers continued to try to capture: young people. With ‘‘Obey Your Thirst,’’ Coca-Cola USA aimed Sprite ads at specific age groups. At the same time, rival soda maker PepsiCo Inc. was turning away from this practice. It believed that trying to execute a niche strategy in the soft drink industry carried too many risks because companies invariably fail to reach any customers outside the target audience.
In 1996 the Sprite brand concluded one of its most spectacular years of market performance. Sales surged an impressive 17.6 percent, displacing venerable Diet Pepsi along with Mountain Dew and Dr. Pepper to become America’s fourth-ranked soft drink. 7-Up, in eighth place, dropped 0.2 percent in volume. ‘‘Sprite has been highly successful . . . much of it at the expense of 7-Up,’’ observed Paine Webber analyst Emanuel Goldman in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Sprite’s strong performance, together with the robust sales of Coke and Diet Coke, gave Coca-Cola USA three of the four top soft drink brands for the first time since 1985.
In response to the challenge from Sprite, Dr. Pepper/Seven Up Inc. in 1997 announced plans to reformulate 7-Up, making it less sweet and giving it a crisper taste. Industry analysts expected the reformulation to make 7-Up taste more like Sprite. The company also planned to introduce new graphics for 7-Up packages as well as a new advertising campaign.
MARKETING TO ‘‘GEN X’’ HAS ITS DOWNSIDE
Sprite has reaped much success from its ‘‘Obey Your Thirst’’ commercials playing to the cynical attitudes of 1990s youth. The ads gained their satirical punch from the debunking of other ads that relied on hype and image building. This approach was said to appeal to jaded Generation X consumers raised in an age of media manipulation. But playing to the apathy of the public has not always been successful. In fact, as Coca-Cola USA discovered when it tried to market the first Generation X soft drink, it can backfire spectacularly. The concoction was called OK Soda and was the brainchild of Coca-Cola USA marketing chief Sergio Zyman (who would later develop the New Age beverage Fruitopia). Introduced in selected cities in mid-1994, OK Soda brandished matte-gray cans featuring downbeat drawings by underground comic book artists. The emblazoned slogans were equally doleful. ‘‘What’s the point of OK soda?’’ read one representative caption. ‘‘Well what’s the point of anything?’’
Advertising for the seemingly depressing drink was created by the prominent Portland ad house of Wieden & Kennedy. A 1-800-I-FEEL-OK hotline was offered, where callers could record comments, listen to the cynical (and agency-crafted) ramblings of others, and take a Generation X ‘‘personality test.’’ OK Soda’s advertising message failed to overcome its reputed deficiencies of taste. The nine-city campaign failed, and the product was quietly withdrawn from circulation.
In addition to relating a straightforward message that Sprite was a light, crisp, and refreshing beverage, Sprite marketers wanted to convey that Sprite was not pretentious. Since the introduction of the ‘‘Obey Your Thirst’’ campaign in 1994, the Sprite brand spoke to legitimacy and integrity, encouraging consumers to trust their instincts and, in a sense, saying to teenagers, ‘‘Exercise your own judgment.’’ The earliest ‘‘Obey Your Thirst’’ commercials parodied the pomposity and pretense of commercials for other products. Specifically in Sprite’s crosshairs were spots for Canon cameras featuring tennis star Andre Agassi, in which the tennis star declares, ‘‘Image is everything.’’ A series of humorous Sprite spots inverted this concept and those of similar commercials. Coca-Cola USA’s 1997 advertising strategy for Sprite retained the ‘‘Obey Your Thirst’’ tag line and the irreverent, icon-bashing tone of previous spots for the brand. The newer spots continued to poke fun at other company’s ads. But they also took on an edgier tone, as Coca-Cola USA sought to meet its goal of capturing 50 percent of domestic market share by the turn of the century. There were five new spots in all, all created by Lowe & Partners/SMS. Perhaps the most daring—and the most critically well-received—was a commercial that parodied Coca-Cola’s own commercials from the 1980s by providing information on Jooky, a mythical newfangled soft drink. A group of youthful party goers are shown living it up with their Jookies on the beach when the camera pans back to show two slack-jawed gawkers watching the ‘‘commercial’’ on television. When they pop the tops on their own Jookies, however, no party breaks out. ‘‘Oh, man,’’ says one. ‘‘Mine’s busted.’’ The voice-over then instructs: ‘‘Trust your taste buds, not commercials.’’
The other spots in the campaign were similar in tone. One poked fun at product demonstrations. Another took aim at the venerable Budweiser frogs, showing a bear eating out of a tin can while a frog snacked on a slimy worm. In another, perennial ‘‘Obey Your Thirst’’ pitchman Grant Hill fends off offers from an agent to do television shows, books, and record albums. The spot was seen as an oblique parody of Pepsi commercials featuring basketball star Shaquille O’Neal. A third commercial told visitors to Hollywood to bring along their own Sprite because ‘‘a place this concerned with image just doesn’t have any.’’ This was a clear spoof of the popular Visa credit card commercials that urge viewers to ‘‘bring along your gold card’’ to various hot spots.
Accompanying the new ads was a packaging overhaul. The Sprite ‘‘dimple bottle’’ was designed to differentiate the brand from other beverage choices, particularly in the important single-serve segment. The proprietary plastic packaging, featuring vertical rows of ‘‘bubbles’’ indented on the bottle wall, was reminiscent of Sprite’s familiar green glass bottles and was designed to reflect the brand’s ‘‘cool, refreshing’’ personality. Sprite launched the new packaging in grocery and convenience stores with a flier announcing, ‘‘We’re smiling so wide our dimples are showing.’’
Building a brand relevant to consumers sometimes involved more than traditional advertising tactics. Sprite endeavored to reflect its distinct, straightforward personality through a complete marketing mix in a way that was relevant to teenagers. Accordingly, a series of crosspromotions with youth-oriented enterprises was launched. Three popular NBA players—Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers, Juwan Howard of the Washington Wizards, and number-one draft pick Tim Duncan of the San Antonio Spurs—all agreed to give away their team jerseys and basketball shoes to 150 winners of the Sprite ‘‘Own ‘Em’’ contest. In addition, six grand prize winners got to drive away in a sport utility vehicle that had actually been driven by the players. Consumers could win instantly by looking under the cap of 20-ounce and one-liter bottles of Sprite or by checking the inside packs of Sprite 12-pack and 24-pack can wraps to reveal prizes. Launched in November 1997 to coincide with the start of the NBA season, the promotion ran through the end of March 1998.
Keeping with its basketball theme, Sprite marketers also launched the Sprite Playground at NBA Jam Session, an interactive attraction offering a wide variety of basketball activities for fans to test their skills, play out-of-theordinary games, and win prizes. The activities area, which traveled to various state fairs around the United States during the summer of 1997—was surrounded by NBA photos and life-size player images. The strong connection between Sprite and professional basketball was explained by Pina Sciarra, Sprite brand manager for Coca-Cola USA, in a company press release: ‘‘Sprite is the only soft drink that embodies the lifestyle and attitude of NBA players.’’
Other national ‘‘Obey Your Thirst’’ promotions also sought to appeal to urban youth. An under-the-cap promotion teamed Sprite with apparel manufacturers Fishpaw Industries and Shabazz Brothers Urbanwear, both of whose clothing lines appealed to inner-city youths as well as markets outside the urban boundaries. In this promotion consumers had a one in six chance of winning free products, or they could win apparel from Fishpaw and Shabazz by simply twisting off the cap and reading the message imprinted under the top of 16-ounce, 20-ounce, and one-liter bottles of Sprite. The Sprite ‘‘Under the Cap ‘Obey Your Thirst’ Promotion’’ began March 1, 1997, and ran through September 30, 1997. In a promotion aimed more specifically at the African-American community, Coca-Cola USA signed on as a major advertiser and exclusive soft drink sponsor of the annual Soul Train Music Awards show on March 7, 1997, in Los Angeles’s Shrine Auditorium. Soul Train was a popular, nationally syndicated television dance and music show founded by Don Cornelius. A ‘‘Sprite Nite’’ celebrity party was held on the eve of the Soul Train Music Awards show and was televised live on Black Entertainment Television (BET). In addition to performances by rhythm-and-blues and hip-hop artists, the Sprite Image Breaker of the Year Award was presented. Coca-Cola USA aired commercials for Sprite and Coca-Cola Classic during the awards program.
Measured in sales impact, ‘‘Obey Your Thirst’’ was a successful campaign. The ‘‘Obey Your Thirst’’ message helped Sprite secure 5.8 percent of the national soft drink market in 1996, up from 5.1 percent the previous year. In 1997 Sprite’s global volume jumped by 13 percent while domestic volume increased 10 percent. Beverage industry analysts were impressed with Sprite’s ability to create sustained growth in a competitive sector. ‘‘Coke’s marketing of Sprite has been laser-like in its focus and very successful,’’ John Sicher, the editor of Beverage Digest, told a writer for Newsday.
Some advertising critics, however, found the strategy behind the ads too cynical. ‘‘If image is nothing and taste is everything,’’ asked Bob Garfield in Advertising Age magazine, ‘‘why is not one of the ads about taste? Why are none of the ads about anything intrinsic to Sprite? Why does the famous athlete send up use Grant Hill, a famous athlete?’’ The answer, according to Garfield, was because ‘‘as far as this advertising is concerned, image is not nothing. Image is everything.’’