Population Statistic: Read. React. Repeat.
Tuesday, December 21, 2021

It’s quite the paradox: Just as diet sodas are gaining in popularity and becoming the growth engine of the beverage biz, their traditional “diet” label is seen as a negative quality, and thus is being replaced by “zero”.

As much as Americans guzzle flavored cold drinks, it’s natural that they’d want to cut back the calories that go with them. Fatty and high-calorie foods are too hard to give up, so drinks get in the dieting crosshairs.

The problem is that food products tagged as “diet” come with a decades-ingrained presumption of inferior taste and texture. It’s a built-in stigma, predicated as much on unappealing experience as on gender-specificity (the assumption that women are more prone to body-consciousness than men). It’s hard to remake that image, even among younger consumers who may not remember the harsh early-stage products that were introduced in the 1970s and 80s.

In addition to evoking a bygone era replete with brands like Metrecal, Patio Diet Cola, Sugar Twin and Tab, the word “diet” can have unpleasant connotations, said John Diefenbach, a partner at TrueBrand in San Francisco, also a corporate and brand identity consultant.

“It’s a word that represents something that doesn’t taste good, a punishment, and people don’t want to be punished,” Mr. Diefenbach said. “They want something that tastes good.”

So instead, a new tagline is rolled out; but at the risk of losing potentially valuable brand equity:

Still, there are risks to eliminating a word like “diet” from familiar brands.

“I have doubts about renaming products that consumers already know,” said John D. Sicher, editor and publisher of Beverage Digest, an industry newsletter based in Bedford Hills, N.Y. “I’m not sure it’s a great idea.” The risk is that products may lose whatever competitive advantage they now enjoy in an overcrowded category.

Even so, “using names other than ‘diet’ makes sense on new products,” Mr. Sicher said, “as a way to broaden the segment.”

So why “zero”?

“What we found in the new name is that it appeals to nonusers of Diet Sprite,” whether those consumers had stopped buying Diet Sprite or had never tried it at all, said Dan Dillon, vice president for marketing in the diet unit of Coca-Cola North America.

“And ‘zero’ is a much better, more accurate description of the product,” Mr. Dillon said, because it extends beyond “zero calories, zero carbs, zero sugar” to encompass “zero color and zero caffeine.”

Maybe. But honestly, the term “zero” doesn’t convey a positive absence of unwanted elements to me, as much as it reminds me of a negative connotation: A nothing, a loser, a worthlessness. And this is coming from a typical 25-34 year-old white male, who does indeed have a bit of a problem with being seen in possession of a girly-like diet beverage (although I’ll still drink one, with an alibi like, “I just drink Diet Coke with Lime because they don’t make a regular Coke with Lime”).

I doubt I’m the only one who feels this way, and I’m sure market research will spit back some unpleasant feedback along these lines. That’s why I’m sure the “zero” movement will be stopped cold by this time next year, as much a non-starter as the former and current “free” tag.

Speaking of which:

Mr. Sears at Pepsi-Cola North America offered a similar explanation. “Diet lemon-lime is unique because it’s not just sugar-free and calorie-free but also caffeine-free and color-free,” Mr. Sears said. But because all brands “start with the word ‘diet,’ consumers lump all diet soft drinks together in one place in their minds,” he added, obscuring the “positive connotations” of having no color or caffeine.

“Taking off ‘diet’ and putting ‘free,’ a great, wonderful word, at the end lets us lead off with ‘Sierra Mist’ in the name,” Mr. Sears said.

Pepsi-Cola North America tried something similar a couple of decades ago, rebranding the caffeine-free versions of Pepsi-Cola and Diet Pepsi-Cola as Pepsi Free and Diet Pepsi Free. The renamings even served to set up a joke in the 1985 movie “Back to the Future,” when Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox), visiting 1955, is told by a counterman after he orders a Pepsi Free, “You want a Pepsi, pal, you’re gonna pay for it.”

by Costa Tsiokos, Tue 12/21/2004 09:52pm
Category: Advert./Mktg., Business, Food
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