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What can we learn from Coke?

January 11, 2021


What can we learn from Coke?

From Zero to Hero?: The Odyssey of Coke’s Sugar-Free Brand

This article is written to demonstrate that Coke Zero in hindsight may have not asked the right questions to best understand the essence of their brand. Let me take you on a journey. 


In 2020, Coca-Cola announced they’d discontinue Tab soda, a brand that had been around since the 1960s. Tab was one of the very first “diet” sodas, paving the way for Diet Coke, Diet Pepsi, and eventually, Coke Zero.

Coke announced the move as part of a global “refresh” of its portfolio. In a world with Coke Zero, was Tab needed?

Yet Coke Zero hasn’t had the easiest time gaining a foothold or momentum. A “reformulation” in 2017 had people worried the soft drink giant was repeating its New Coke error. And Coke Zero had a tough time getting into some markets, with some campaigns even causing backlash against Coke.

Let’s take a look at the brand’s trajectory and what it can teach us about branding.

A diet soda was not capturing both genders. The Goal: Making Diets Masculine

Coke Zero is a “diet” cola, in that it’s sugar-free. In some variations, it’s also caffeine-free, although not always. Unlike Diet Coke, which has its own particular taste, Coke Zero’s flavor is modelled on the original. Early advertising campaigns played this aspect up. Some ads showed Coca-Cola executives threatening to sue their own employees for “taste infringement."

So, why not retire the old Diet Coke formula and put out this superior-tasting product? You can get all the Coca-Cola flavour with zero sugar. It’s like the best of both worlds.

The problem is two-fold. One, Diet Coke has a specific taste profile, which people know and accept. Replacing it—even with something “better”—could create another “New Coke” situation.

The other, bigger issue is branding. Pretty much anything with the word “diet” in it is feminine. So, Diet Coke is the “girl” version of Coca-Cola, if you will. Reformulating it isn’t going to change that perception. It’s not going to get male buyers—the biggest soda consumers—to make a switch.

Coca-Cola’s solution to the problem was to launch a new product and give it a more “masculine” brand identity. The branding guidelines state Coke Zero appeals to male buyers in the 18 to 24 demographic. The branding itself reflects that. It uses a black and red palette, and even the choice of the word “zero” is intentionally masculinizing. Zero could imply a lot of things, not necessarily that you’re looking for a “sugar-free” or “diet” product.

That’s hooked back to many social ideas about men and women. Women are under intense pressure to maintain a particular figure. While there is tremendous effort to shift that perception, the reality is that on average women feel their bodies are more scrutinized, and with the work I have done with multiple global and domestic health brands, fat women are still judged harshly. It's to some degree more acceptable for men to be fat. And for many people, eating without worry or impact on their waistline is something they celebrate. Of course, pressure to conform to certain masculine ideals does exist. We have to account for “gym bro” culture, which stresses muscle-building and high-calorie protein shakes.

Yet younger people in 2009 were also more aware of nutrition. Many were rejecting fast food—and soda and other junk food along with it. There was a perception that the younger demographic—even the men—were concerned about health and weight. At the same time, they didn’t want to sacrifice taste. The solution at the time might have been to pare back on buying soda products or opt not to buy them at all.

So Coke developed Coke Zero, which addressed the desire for a “healthier” product without sacrificing taste. Consumers could buy (and consume) more Coke Zero, without worrying about health implications. That also skirted feminine ideas about “going on a diet” or “watching your weight” or anything like that.

The result of a brand/corporation not being authentic. Missteps in Australia

At launch in Australia, Coca-Cola used a front group to create a guerrilla marketing campaign for their new product. There was street art and graffiti, along with tags encouraging people to visit a fake blog. (This was in 2005, when having a blog still wasn’t mainstream—or even verging on outmoded.)

That all fit in pretty well with the profile for Coke Zero. Graffiti and street art is largely associated with young men. It often “breaks rules,” coming with the threat of trouble with the law. Even the use of the Internet at the time was still “masculinized” to an extent.

It was right in step with a Superbowl ad featuring Troy Polamalu.

Some critics also called it “false” and “misleading” when they discovered it had been orchestrated by a big corporation. That turned into the Zero Coke movement alternative in Australia describing the campaign as: They're a bunch of advertising wankers pretending to be a grass-roots movement.

Rebranding and Reformulation

In 2017, Coke announced that it was reformulating Coke Zero. The product had been performing well. That sparked fears of another “New Coke” moment for the company. New Coke is the classic example of delivering a “solution” that nobody asked for, based on misunderstanding behaviour.

Let’s back up for a moment. In the 1980s, Coke had faced declining sales, losing out to competitor Pepsi. The “solution” the company came up with was to reformulate their product, resulting in “New Coke.” The reformulated beverage was pretty much universally reviled. That led the company to bring back “the original formula” and discontinue New Coke. It would seem that data suggested that taste would fix declining sales, when there was an overall consumer shift towards being more health conscious, which likely was a key driver to overall declines in soda sales.

Coke’s decision to reformulate Coke Zero despite strong performance, suggested a similar issue. Afterwards, experts speculated the “reformulation” had simply brought the product more in line with regular Coca-Cola.

The reformulation happened in tandem with a shift in branding, though. That may have actually been the catalyst, as people seemed not to understand Coke Zero didn’t contain sugar. Coca-Cola rebranded Coke Zero as “Coke Zero Sugar.”

The “original formula” of Coke Zero is still sold in New Zealand. That suggests that there was a bit of a “New Coke” element here as well.

Why Rebrand?

Coke Zero may have underwent the rebranding it did to allow for other “Zero” products to join the lineup. Perhaps rebranding was that Coke Zero seemed to inspire confusion, with some not understanding the product’s name referred to having “zero sugar.”

Perhaps the brand had taken too much of a “masculinized” position in the market, when it appealed to both men and women. Diet Coke is associated with women because “dieting” is considered a more "feminine: behaviour. That doesn’t mean women prefer Diet Coke. In fact, many likely chose it because they wanted a lighter option and it was the only thing on the market. With the introduction of Coke Zero, they may have shifted their buying habits.

But since the product was aimed at a male audience, some female soda buyers may have felt the product wasn’t “for them.” Coke back-peddled (softly) to make the product more appealing to a broader audience over time.

What Can We Learn?

Coke Zero in hindsight may have not asked the right questions. 

·      Why did their consumer (not gender) love their brand? 

·      What subconsciously was the emotional benefit this brand delivered (what consumers were buying) vs. what Coke thought they were selling?  

·      Why were their most valuable consumers loyal to this product? 

·      What was their journey to this brand and what were the reasons that they became brand loyal?

Research was likely conducted based on boardroom hypotheses. Questions were written to answer how do we sell more, perhaps without taking a more freeing approach by understanding the essence of what this brand actually delivered and starting with this depth of insight, how then to best communicate the values of this brand to the greatest breadth and depth of consumers. 

Starting with questions like “how do we make this brand more masculine or less masculine”…suggests the real problem and real value of this brand were not yet understood. I am often in boardrooms where the question dictates the narrow trajectory to the answer. Perhaps step back and answer all the “w” questions would be incredibly enlightening when the true value of what consumers are buying is best understood: Who? What? How? Where? When? and the critical why!

When you retrace the history, we can see echoes of inventing a solution to a problem no one had. Nobody asked for Coke Zero to be reformulated, much the same way no one wanted New Coke. The fact that “original” Coke Zero hangs on in New Zealand suggests there might not have been an issue.

We can also see a successful product launch here, because it speaks to what consumers want (or even need) from Coca-Cola. Perhaps they wanted that great Coke taste, but perhaps they did not want the detrimental health implications of it. They wanted something that was healthier without necessarily being a “diet” product. This  speaks volumes to the way our culture has evolved since the 1980s. There’s a growing focus on healthy and mindful eating, versus exercise fads and yo-yo dieting. Diet Coke spoke to the culture of the 1980s and 1990s, when people were first concerned about the impacts of “junk food.” Coke Zero reimagines what a healthier soda could look like for the 21st-century.

Often a brand can be successful by hitting the wave at the right time, not knowing perhaps why it is successful. It is only after a market matures, sales slow that brand leaders begin to tweak this and that without perhaps really knowing the essence of what a brand stands for, and the real authentic reasons people buy. There in lies the risk. Tweaking without knowing can lead to layers of decision making that can harm a brand’s relationship with its most valuable consumer. 

The question should always start with “why” are consumers buying from you vs. what you think you are selling. And when your brand is incredibly successful is an equally important time to understand this vs. when sales begin to plateau or decline. This kind of insight enables a marketer to ensure that their brand is always relevant and tweaks and mistakes become fewer and far between. 

Like always, then, we have to start with the why!


Here to inspire!

I am a business person who has excelled in driving a competitive edge through marketing, strategy, innovation, building irresistible brands and unlocking the genius that exists. I am writing is inspire or create new consideration. If you have ideas or questions that you would like me to put a pen too, I would be delighted.

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