The marketing of diet products has been fraught with unique challenges because of their focus on physical appearance. Issues such as cultural ideals of beauty, physical health, gender roles, sexuality, and personal identity all hover implicitly or explicitly around the diet products phenomenon. Such concerns constituted only one minefield for the Coca-Cola Company in its advertising of Diet Coke. Another was the word ‘‘diet’’ itself, associated with self-denial. By the mid-1990s few foods or drinks other than diet sodas still carried the label. New products that had no negative ‘‘diet’’ connotations, such as iced teas and flavored waters, began to take market share. Yet Diet Coke’s brand equity was entrenched and powerful. Diet Coke, along with regular Coke, was a flagship product for Coca-Cola. Thus, Coca-Cola needed to maintain and strengthen a positive association based on Diet Coke’s already significant market share, as well as to maintain and increase that share.
In 1995 Coca-Cola dropped Diet Coke’s longtime tag line ‘‘Just for the taste of it’’ and shifted focus from taste to the less direct, lifestyle-oriented benefits of drinking Diet Coke. The company tapped its agency, Lowe & Partners/SMS of New York, for an ad campaign estimated to cost $40 million and that comprised three television spots demonstrating the positive effects of drinking Diet Coke. Using the tag line ‘‘You are what you drink,’’ the campaign opened in May 1997 and aired across the United States as well as in the United Kingdom, Canada, South Africa, and Australia. But the campaign’s message and humor were misunderstood, negative feedback was received, and Lowe and Coca-Cola quickly retrenched with new spots. These problems occurred, in large part, because of the difficulty of navigating through the treacherous sea of issues attached to the marketing of products tagged ‘‘diet.’’
Diet colas had been on the market over 10 years when Coca-Cola introduced Diet Coke in 1982. In the 1960s and 1970s the R. C. Cola Company pioneered the diet cola product category. PepsiCo introduced Diet Pepsi in the 1970s as well. Diet Coke’s launch was one of the most successful ever; it rapidly took the lead in market share for diet colas. Better taste was part of that success, as Diet Coke was the first diet cola to use the artificial sweetener NutraSweet. Hence, its first tag line ‘‘Just for the taste of it’’ promoted this benefit. The tag line was to be used on and off for a decade. By April 1988 Diet Coke held 10.1 percent of the $40 billion soft drink market based on supermarket sales, while Diet Pepsi held 6.9 percent.
The diet soft drink category hit its stride in the 1980s, expanding to 30 percent of the soft drink market. During that decade, diet colas drove the growth of the soft drink market, with consumption growing four to five times faster than for sugared sodas. This coincided with changes occurring among the baby boomers: they were aging, and they began exercising with a vengeance and watching calories. But they did not want to give up flavor. ‘‘Having it all,’’ it seemed, included undiminishing beauty and fitness as well as enjoyment of food and drink. The tag ‘‘Just for the taste of it’’ fit this mind-set. The implication that the products’ taste was good enough to be appreciated for its own sake neutralized the negative association of the word ‘‘diet.’’
The swift growth of the diet drink category stopped abruptly in the 1990s. Sales stayed relatively flat, while the growth of sugared sodas went up. In 1990 diet colas accounted for 21.3 percent of cola sales; this fell to 18.7 percent by 1996. According to USA Today, ‘‘both Coca-Cola and Pepsi saw their diet cola shares dip in retail stores two-tenths of a percentage point during the first half of 1997.’’
Several analysts identified key factors in the sluggish 1990s diet drink sales. John Sicher of Beverage Digest, speaking to USA Today, mentioned ‘‘the strong performances by bottled waters and the fact that many dieters now focus more on fat than calories.’’ In the same article, Michael Bellas of Beverage Marketing noted that ‘‘healthconscious consumers also have some misgivings about artificial sweeteners and caffeine.’’ Manny Goldman, a Paine Webber analyst speaking on National Public Radio’s Morning Edition in May 1997, commented that in the 1990s ‘‘people were becoming a little more selfindulgent, and they were concerned with satisfying their own basal desires, like things that taste good. They were willing to take on some calories to do that.’’ The baby boomers were actually mellowing out. The fight against the effects of time and gravity was ultimately unwinnable, so they chose to adapt. In the meantime, a new market, Generation X, was emerging, and their very different mind-set had to be addressed if Diet Coke was to maintain or improve market share.
As these forces played out, Senior Vice President of Marketing Sergio Zyman guided the company’s marketing style. Often described as brilliant, mercurial, and temperamental, he was dubbed by Cynthia Mitchell of The Atlanta Journal and Constitution ‘‘one of the architects of contemporary advertising.’’ Zyman became known as the person who launched Diet Coke, a huge and immediate success. This was followed in 1993 by the launch of New Coke, a huge and immediate failure. Acting as fall guy, Zyman left the company. Zyman’s approach to the marketing process was innovative and iconoclastic. For example, he increased Coke’s agency network to over two dozen shops. Moreover, he rapidly changed the marketing of Diet Coke, a strategy complicated by the fact that the market for diet soft drinks was itself rapidly changing. ‘‘It is unpredictability that has confused diet Coke’s message to consumers,’’ concluded Benzera and Parpis of BrandWeek.
A summary of the major advertising campaigns of the 1990s illustrates this unpredictability and the resulting fragmentation of brand image. In January 1990 a series of 30-second Diet Coke ads featured celebrities saying goodbye to sugared Pepsi Cola in favor of Diet Coke. The campaign’s theme was ‘‘The move is on.’’
This was a clear effort to grab soft drink market share:
Diet Coke was third overall with 8.9 percent, and Pepsi Cola was second with 18.3 percent. In January 1993 Diet Coke dropped the tag line ‘‘Just for the taste of it’’ and presented two new slogans: ‘‘One awesome calorie’’ and ‘‘Taste it all,’’ splitting the message into two different directions. A famous—or infamous—1994 spot created by Lowe & Partners reversed stereotypical gender roles by having office women ogle a shirtless construction worker drinking a Diet Coke on his break.
In 1995 Zyman returned to Coca-Cola and resumed his marketing of Diet Coke. He was ‘‘charged with shaking up the company’s marketing efforts,’’ noted Mitchell. It is questionable whether the company needed shaking up as much as it needed focus. One relatively conceptual 1995 spot that received critical approval featured a swimming elephant; it was created by the Minneapolis agency Fallon McElligot. Although visually engaging, the spot failed to mesh thematically with other Diet Coke commercials. Another spot produced the same year took a decidedly nonesoteric approach, featuring supermodel Stephanie Seymour dismissing a male admirer at a lunch counter. Diet Coke did grow in 1995 by 3.6 percent, compared with less than 2 percent for other diet soft drinks, but the growth was less than that of Coca-Cola’s other soft drinks. And given that the 1995 Diet Coke sales were flat in grocery stores, convenience stores, and gas stations, the miscellany of commercials was not working. Diet Coke’s share of the soft drink market dropped three-tenths of a percent from 1991 to 1995.
In 1996 Coke spent $72 million on commercials for Diet Coke. A 1996 campaign from Lowe featured variations on the ‘‘Just for the taste of it’’ jingle, such as ‘‘Just for the fun of it.’’ Diet Coke sponsored the Grammy Awards in 1996 and based an early 1997 promotion, ‘‘Diet Coke Untapped,’’ on that sponsorship. Then in January 1997 Diet Coke started an $18 million-plus campaign featuring music stars and prizes. The varied nature of the market required several types of ads. Yet the campaign needed an overarching plan allowing its impact to build over time. This would have required a disciplined strategic partnership between Coca-Cola and the primary agency, Lowe, with consistent direction provided by Coca-Cola as a foundation for the agency’s sustained creative activity.
Part of the difficulty of marketing Diet Coke resided in the diversity of its market, each segment of which had it own hot spots and red flags. Because by 1997 the taste issue was no longer news, Coca-Cola needed to focus on the concerns of Diet Coke drinkers and potential drinkers. The company teamed with Lowe early that year to create three new television spots with the tag line ‘‘You are what you drink.’’ The spots were based on the premise that the product helped people to look and feel their best.
Specifically, the effort was targeted at what Coca-Cola identified as three ‘‘attitudinal groups,’’ distilled from the diverse Diet Coke market. The ‘‘fit and confidents’’ were the younger and hipper group, 20-something men and women who did not need to diet but feared gaining weight. The ‘‘reluctant dieters’’ were men and women in their 30s who wanted to look good without sacrificing taste. The ‘‘aggressive dieters’’ were women 35 and over who worked hard to stay fit. Coca-Cola intended this effort not only to spur greater usage of Diet Coke among current Diet Coke drinkers but also to bring back some lapsed users and pull in some drinkers of regular Coke as well.
Although many diet sodas have tried to corner the market over the years, Diet Coke and Diet Pepsi have been locked in a head-to-head battle from the start, with Diet Coke gaining and holding the greater market share but Diet Pepsi always too close for comfort, particularly in terms of brand recognition and popularity among retail consumers. Together, Coca-Cola and Pepsi brands controlled 75 percent of the soft drink business by 1997, with their diet colas alone earning more than $10 billion in sales.
An incident occurring in the 1980s exemplifies the intensity of the Diet Coke-Diet Pepsi competition. Diet Coke at that point held 10.1 percent of the soft drink market and Diet Pepsi 6.9 percent. Pepsi produced a TV ad in which boxer Mike Tyson told reporters that Diet Pepsi ‘‘beat the taste of Diet Coke’’ in consumer taste tests. Tyson had just beaten Leon Spinks in a major match, which Pepsi had exclusively sponsored. Coke challenged the methodology behind the claim, demanded that Pepsi produce its research, and asked the networks to withdraw the ads (which they did not). Pepsi submitted documentation to the networks and challenged Coke’s own testing methods. Another component of the $4.4 million campaign was a full-page ad in the New York Times showing Tyson holding a can of Diet Pepsi. The ad copy read, ‘‘After a couple of pops in the mouth, it was over. Diet Pepsi had won the title. In head-to-head taste tests, Diet Pepsi decisively beat the taste of Diet Coke.’’
The market share percentages of the two competitors shifted in the mid-1990s even more in Diet Coke’s favor. In 1995 Diet Coke was third among all soft drinks in market share, with 8.8 percent, the same as the previous year. Diet Pepsi was fifth, the same place as in 1994, but lost 0.1 percent. By the last quarter of 1996 Diet Pepsi had fallen to seventh place, in spite of a 1.6 percent gain in sales volume. In its previous number four spot was Coca-Cola’s soda Sprite. Just $243,000 was spent on advertising Diet Pepsi in 1996, but in early 1997 PepsiCo completely repositioned its strategy with a new $19 million campaign.
In the first half of 1997, Diet Coke kept its number three position in the soft drink lineup, diet sodas overall continued to lose market share, and Diet Pepsi launched its new campaign featuring the slogan ‘‘This is diet?’’ During that time Coca-Cola had performed extensive research and positioning studies that led to the articulation of a new strategy: ‘‘Diet Coke helps you look and feel your best.’’ This was based in large part on the fact that, after all was said and done, there was nothing new, such as a better sweetener, on which to construct a more exciting message. Promoting taste alone was no longer an option. Moreover, Diet Pepsi had just launched its tasteoriented ‘‘This is diet?’’ ads. Lowe & Partners/SMS worked with Coca-Cola to produce three TV ads for the campaign, ‘‘Aunt Rosalina,’’ ‘‘Blizzard,’’ and ‘‘Queen.’’ The campaign followed swiftly on the heels of an image revamp for the brand, executed by SBG Partners, San Francisco, which consisted of a silvery new package and new graphics for the drink. It was designed to align the brand with various consumer lifestyles and represented the first genuine strategy for the brand since 1994. Coke executives believed that ‘‘the repositioning would re-energize the static diet category,’’ according to MediaWeek. The campaign broke on May 19, timed for the start of the summer season, and ran on network and cable.
The ‘‘Blizzard’’ spot showed two men commenting on women walking by who were bundled up against the cold. The women who drank Diet Cokes through their scarves were the ones the men favored. The ‘‘Queen’’ commercial showed a mirror telling a queen that she no longer was fair; rather, a girl drinking Diet Coke was. ‘‘Aunt Rosalina,’’ the most controversial spot in the series, was set in an Italian village. After watching a parade of beautiful, fit women who stroll by proudly holding cans of Diet Coke, a lovely little girl asks her old aunt, ‘‘If I drink Diet Coke, will I be beautiful too?’’ Aunt Rosalina replies, ‘‘I never had a Diet Coke, and look at me.’’ The camera moves to reveal her to be an ugly hag. The ad was rotated with ‘‘Blizzard’’ and ‘‘Queen’’ and received far less weight—166 spots out of 844. Approximately 60 percent of the commercials were shown during primetime, 20 percent during the day, and 10 percent during late night.
The tag line for these commercials, ‘‘You are what you drink,’’ was meant to be tongue-in-cheek and lighthearted while conveying the message that drinking Diet Coke could help the consumer look and feel good. In ‘‘Aunt Rosalina’’ this message was reinforced by the attractive women who were drinking Diet Coke. Intentionally they were caricatures rather than characters; the viewer was not expected to think she magically would look that way by drinking Diet Coke. In that sense the ad spoofed in a subtle way the goal of ideal physical beauty. Sergio Zyman, quoted in USA Today, explained that ‘‘this latest wave of advertising is less about well-recognized intrinsic attributes of the brand, such as taste and one-calorie refreshment. It is more about how someone feels and the self-confidence they project when they hold a Diet Coke.’’ Zyman told The Wall Street Journal Europe that for Coke to continue to rely on the theme of ‘‘taste and one-calorie is kind of beating a dead horse’’ and that the aim now was to ‘‘broaden the definition of Diet Coke. I would like to see people walking around with Diet Coke.’’ Or, as AdWeek ’s Debrah Goldman put it, the real message of the campaign was ‘‘to establish Diet Coke as a fashion accessory, . . . la Evian.’’
DIET COKE TAG LINES
‘‘Just for the taste of it’’: 1982–1992, 1995–1997.
‘‘One awesome calorie’’: 1993.
‘‘Taste it all’’: 1992.
‘‘This is refreshment’’: 1994.
‘‘You are what you drink’’: 1997.
Consumer and critical reaction to the commercials was fast and harsh, and the airing of ‘‘Aunt Rosalina’’ ended on July 20, 1997, three months after it began. Coca-Cola received letters from customers criticizing its ‘‘sexist’’ approach. A nationwide poll reported in USA Today of 271 adults who had seen the Diet Coke commercials showed that 10 percent of all respondents liked the ads a lot, but this fell to only 3 percent for 18-to-24 year olds. Fully 21 percent of respondents disliked the spots. But a significant percentage, 16 percent, said the commercials were very effective, and almost two-thirds considered them somewhat effective, indicating conflict over the message. Responses of critics revealed that the intended playfulness of the commercials missed the mark. The milder commentary critiqued the spots for presumptuousness and lack of subtlety. Goldman of AdWeek wrote, ‘‘These spots are a classic case of a campaign with its briefs showing. Sure, Coca-Cola wants you to be what you drink, just as other advertisers hope you are what you wear or drive . . . .But an advertisement’s job is to elicit that reaction, not to assume it, or, worse, to pretend that it already exists.’’
On National Public Radio’s Morning Edition, Joshua Levs questioned Coca-Cola’s Bob Bertini, who presented the rationale behind the commercials. Then Levs zeroed in: ‘‘ ‘You are what you drink’—who wants to be carbonated water, caramel color, aspartame, and potassium benzoate?’’ That he could even consider such a literal reading of the line—the very week the spot first aired—signaled serious problems with the commercial for Coke. Bob Garfield of Advertising Age opened his review of ‘‘Aunt Rosalina’’ with ‘‘This just in: Men are pigs.’’ He interpreted the commercial as affirming that the value of women lies in their slenderness and attractiveness to men. He did not see or accept that the spot’s humor actually poked fun at this attitude. The ‘‘troubling new spots,’’ he wrote, ‘‘remind women how important Diet Coke is in their relentless pursuit of svelteness, men’s attraction and self-esteem . . . . In the end, for all their tongue-in-cheek exaggeration, these spots don’t lampoon the cult of beauty. They validate it.’’
The ‘‘feel your best’’ component of the message seemed to have evaporated. The media budget was reduced as a result of this negative response, and creative development was undertaken to rectify the situation. Lowe produced two commercials, ‘‘Big Wrestlers,’’ which featured Sumo wrestlers who sincerely compliment each other’s appearance despite their tremendous size, and ‘‘It’s Him,’’ centered on an invisible man who is admired by attractive women in a bar, presumably because of his confidence and demeanor. These new spots, however, were attempts to breathe life into positions consumers had already rejected; ‘‘look and feel your best’’ had died. They received little weight in the last quarter of 1997 and were shelved in early 1998.
Shortly after ‘‘Aunt Rosalina’’ flopped, Wieden & Kennedy of Portland, Oregon, was assigned six 30-second Diet Coke commercials in a last-ditch attempt to get some traction. This spurred media speculation that Wieden would become the new agency for the brand. The spots were not well received. After that Coca-Cola recognized the need to step back and undertake ‘‘extensive research . . . to determine a strategy and long-term direction for the brand.’’ Two earlier spots produced by Lowe were aired then and continued to be aired through the summer of 1998.
In March 1998 Sergio Zyman resigned from Coca-Cola. The man who replaced Zyman, Charles S. Frenette, was Zyman’s opposite in terms of personality and operations background. Frenette continued to work with Lowe & Partners. He indicated that he planned to take a longer-term strategic approach to the Coke-Lowe partnership, so critical for the marketing of Diet Coke during times of cultural and demographic upheaval.