In late 2003 the Coca-Cola Company’s lemon-lime softdrink brand, Sprite, reigned as America’s fifth-best-selling soft drink and the highest-grossing lemon-lime soda in America. Even though Sprite appeared to be the clear leader over all lemon-lime soft drink brands, its market share was rapidly slipping to Sierra Mist, a lemon-lime soft drink sold by the Pepsi-Cola Company. Reusing its long-running tagline that was conceived by the ad agency Lowe & Partners in 1994, Sprite released a new variation of the ‘‘Obey Your Thirst’’ campaign to keep its product relevant to its 16- to 24-year-old target demographic. The WPP Group’s advertising agency Ogilvy & Mather released three television spots in February 2004 that introduced Sprite’s new mascot, Miles Thirst, a 10-inch-tall puppet. Hoping to attract the youth of the hip-hop and basketball cultures, Miles Thirst’s wardrobe consisted of flashy hip-hop garb. The wisecracking puppet proclaimed his love for Sprite in two television spots. In a third commercial, titled ‘‘LeBron,’’ LeBron James, the National Basketball Association (NBA) all-star, gave Miles Thirst a tour of his decadent home. The puppet appeared unimpressed until James led him into his kitchen, which was equipped with a Sprite vending machine. The campaign’s 2004 budget was estimated at $45 million. Besides the television spots, media included online advertisement, a Miles Thirst website, and the passing out of free posters, magnets, stickers, and T-shirts featuring Miles Thirst. The campaign and tagline ended in 2005 after Sprite dropped Ogilvy & Mather for the Miami-based advertising agency Crispin Porter + Bogusky.
Overall success for the 2004 campaign was mild. Besides collecting a Bronze One Show Award in the category of Promotional and Point of Purchase Posters in 2004, the campaign was also appreciated by a majority of its target market. ‘‘Obey Your Thirst’’ commercials were ‘‘liked a lot’’ by 18 to 24 year olds, according to the weekly consumer poll Ad Track, conducted by USA Today. Unfortunately for Sprite, sales fell 3 percent in 2004, and its overall 5.7 percent share of the soft-drink industry was dwindling.
After Lowe & Partners created the ‘‘Obey Your Thirst’’ campaign in 1994, Sprite enjoyed strong market growth into the late 1990s. It was the fastest-growing Coca-Cola brand in 1997 and sold 6 percent more cases over the previous year. By 2001, however, sales had begun to wane, and Coca-Cola executives feared that Sprite and other Coca-Cola brands were falling out of style with the younger crowd. Hoping a different ad agency would reenergize its lemon-lime brand, Coca-Cola awarded its Sprite advertising account to Ogilvy & Mather in 2001. To bolster Sprite’s image Coca-Cola also paid NBA superstar Kobe Bryant to endorse the lemon-lime soft drink. Bryant was featured in commercials that used the tagline ‘‘Obey your thirst,’’ along with an additional tagline, ‘‘What’s your thirst?’’ Tom Pirko, president of the beverage-industry consulting firm Bevmark, told Advertising Age, ‘‘Coke has been attacked as being dowdy and ultra-conservative, so they want to stay relevant.’’ Sprite stopped airing commercials featuring Bryant in 2003 after a 19-year-old Colorado woman accused him of rape.
The 2003 television spot ‘‘Rikkia’’ was the first Sprite advertisement released by Ogilvy & Mather. It featured the race-car star Rikkia Miller speeding around the racetrack to music by the rock group the Donnas. Miller also provided a voice-over for ‘‘Rikkia’’ in which she explained her love for racing. Just before drinking a Sprite at the spot’s conclusion, Miller looked into the camera and asked, ‘‘What’s my thirst?’’ Sprite’s sales jumped 12 percent in the second quarter of 2003 after the brand released its new flavor Sprite Remix, a lemon-lime soda with a twist of tropical fruit ‘‘Sprite is a great brand, but it has been in decline for several years. It badly needs a shot in the arm,’’ John Sicher, editor and publisher of Beverage Digest, an industry publication, told the Dow Jones News Service. ‘‘Remix will help, but additional aggressive steps are also necessary.’’ That same year Sprite negotiated a $2 million-peryear endorsement contract with basketball all-star LeBron James. Hoping to regain relevance within its target market, Sprite in February 2004 released a version of ‘‘Obey Your Thirst’’ that featured James along with Sprite’s new mascot, a puppet named Miles Thirst.
‘‘Obey Your Thirst’’ targeted 16 to 24 year olds. According to KPMG Consumer Markets Insider, a company that analyzed different industry trends, teenagers did not respond to advertisements in the same way as adults. Teenagers typically listened to ‘‘brand ambassadors,’’ young celebrities or fellow teenagers that established credibility amongst their peers. To endorse the soft drink, Sprite hired NBA star LeBron James, who was only 20 years old during the 2004 leg of ‘‘Obey Your Thirst.’’ The new Sprite mascot, Miles Thirst, a 10-inch puppet dressed in hip-hop clothing such as oversized watches, baggy pants, and gold chains, was also featured in Sprite advertisements in 2004 and 2005. ‘‘Thirst was the perfect choice for Sprite,’’ John Carroll, group director for Sprite, told the PR Newswire. ‘‘Not only does Thirst represent everything Sprite stands for, he recognizes and represents the aspects of youth culture that are inherent to Sprite drinkers. Plus, you couldn’t ask for a better last name.’’
Although Miles Thirst was an African-American puppet, the campaign did not solely target an African-American demographic. ‘‘Hip-hop is a $1 billion-a-year industry that could not survive on just black people,’’ Shawn Prez, president of the urban-marketing group Power Moves, remarked in USA Today about Miles Thirst and his hip-hop appeal. ‘‘When you’re making this kind of money, [hip-hop] has crossed gender, race and age groups. The white audience for hip-hop is much larger than the black audience at this point.’’ In 2004 white, suburban teenage males spent more money on hip-hop products than any other group, according to USA Today.
Ranking third in soft-drink sales (behind Coca-Cola and PepsiCo, Inc.), Dr Pepper/Seven Up, Inc., struggled to bolster its own flagship lemon-lime brand, Seven Up, in 2004. Young & Rubicam Advertising had handled Seven Up’s $25 to $45 million yearly advertising budget since 1995. Initial campaign taglines touted Seven Up as the ‘‘uncola,’’ referencing the drink’s lack of cola, an ingredient found in Pepsi and Coca-Cola soft drinks. Next, the ‘‘Are You an Un?’’ campaign was launched, but it was quickly discontinued in 1999 after its appeal to 12 to 24 year olds proved ineffective. The sales of Seven Up’s 192-ounce cases dropped from 174 million sold in 2002 to 126 million sold in 2003. In 2004 Seven Up advertisements featured the tagline ‘‘Make 7Up Yours.’’ The avoidance of using ‘‘un’’ or ‘‘cola’’ was an attempt by Young & Rubicam to make Seven Up appeal to younger consumers unfamiliar with the cola reference. According to Gary A. Hemphill, senior vice president of the Beverage Marketing Corporation, which offered research and consulting services to the soft-drink industry, the drop in Seven Up sales resulted from the growing success of Sierra Mist, a lemon-lime soft drink sold by Pepsi under the tagline ‘‘shockingly refreshing.’’ After the brand was introduced in early 2001, its sales climbed 89.3 percent between 2002 and 2003. The successful new competitor prompted Seven Up and Sprite to rethink their marketing strategies. Sprite created commercials with Miles Thirst. Hoping to regain its slipping market share, Seven Up approached several different advertising agencies outside of Young & Rubicam.
Born on December 30, 1984, LeBron James was the youngest NBA basketball player to receive the Rookie of the Year award (2003–2004). The six-foot-eightinch forward, who began endorsing the lemon-lime soft drink Sprite in 2003, was one of only three rookies in NBA history to average 20 points a game.
In 2003 Sprite signed a $12 million dollar, six-year deal with the NBA Rookie of the Year LeBron James. Ogilvy & Mather also created a mascot for Sprite, Miles Thirst, a wisecracking puppet whose mouth remained closed while speaking. Reno Wilson, an actor who had frequently appeared on the hit television program The Cosby Show, provided Miles Thirst’s voice. The puppet portion of ‘‘Obey Your Thirst’’ kicked off on February 14, 2004, when three commercial spots, ‘‘LeBron,’’ ‘‘Two Sprites,’’ and ‘‘What’s Better Than Sprite?’’ aired during the NBA All-Star game. In all the spots Miles Thirst was shown in several different wardrobes reflecting hip-hop fashions. Ogilvy & Mather hoped the combination of James’s endorsement and a humorous Spriteloving puppet would compel 16 to 24 year olds to drink Sprite.
In the 30-second spot titled ‘‘LeBron,’’ James gave Miles Thirst a tour of his luxurious home. The spot mimicked the MTV program Cribs, in which celebrities allowed MTV camera crews to tour their houses. During ‘‘LeBron,’’ Miles Thirst appeared disinterested in James’s furnishings, which included a king-size waterbed and a plasma television. The puppet became suddenly excited about the tour when he noticed a giant Sprite vending machine in James’s kitchen. In the spot ‘‘Two Sprites,’’ Miles Thirst explained to curious onlookers why he preferred to have two extra-large Sprites in the cup holders of his movie theater seat. ‘‘Never be too far away from the big, thirst-quenching taste of Sprite,’’ the puppet explained The commercial’s humor hinged on the beautiful women flanking Thirst at the spot’s conclusion. The spot ‘‘What’s Better than Sprite?’’ featured Thirst challenging his friends to name one thing better than Sprite. Suddenly two beautiful women passed, prompting Thirst to rephrase the challenge: ‘‘Alright! Name two!’’ Miles Thirst ended each spot by demanding, ‘‘Show me my motto.’’ The screen then displayed the tagline ‘‘Obey your thirst.’’
Adweek magazine’s Barbara Lippert wrote of the campaign, ‘‘The set-up—a sexualized vinyl doll spouting street lingo—could easily devolve into an obvious, annoying, pandering and even racist attempt to getdown-in-the-hood-with-the-bros. Instead, it’s quick, funny and real enough.’’ Other critics were not as pleased. The Rainbow/Push Coalition, a discrimination watchdog group founded by the Reverend Jesse Jackson, accused the puppet of propagating negative African-American stereotypes. ‘‘We’ve had some conversations with Coke about Miles. We let them know that we think the character is ill-advised,’’ Janice Mathis, a Rainbow/ Push vice president, told Brandweek.
The website www.milesthirst.com was created for the campaign. Miles Thirst also appeared on MTV as a guest, and 1,500 Miles Thirst dolls were mailed to ‘‘key trend influencers around the country,’’ according to USA Today. In May 2004 Ogilvy & Mather released further commercials with Miles Thirst explaining Sprite’s ‘‘Thirst Out’’ promotion, in which consumers could win video rentals, digital music downloads, and mobilephone ring tones.
Lisa Speakman, senior brand manager for Sprite at Coca-Cola, told Brandweek that the 2004 segment of ‘‘Obey Your Thirst’’ was the highest rated in recent Sprite history. ‘‘Our internal brand-health scores are increasing on the Sprite brand. This indicates the marketing is having its desired effect over time,’’ she said in April 2004. The campaign also garnered a Bronze One Show Award for Promotional and Point of Purchase Posters in 2004. Despite higher ratings and an advertising-industry award, however, the campaign failed to halt Sprite’s drop in sales. The soft-drink’s sales dipped 3 percent in 2004, according to Beverage Digest, a publication covering the nonalcoholic-beverages industry.
Sprite was not the only lemon-lime soft drink to lose sales in 2004. Seven Up was knocked from the list of top-10 soda brands, a change that many analysts attributed to the rising popularity of Pepsi’s Sierra Mist, a lemon-lime drink released in 2001. Sierra Mist sales grew 89.3 percent in 2003 compared with 2002. Sprite’s 2005 sales slump prompted Coca-Cola to end Ogilvy & Mather’s advertising for its Sprite brand and to discontinue its ‘‘Obey your thirst’’ tagline.