Coke likes the Sprite in diet

@@img1The Prince Of Beverages
By Greg W. Prince

Coke and Diet Sprite-they’ve got a thing going on. It’s been a reasonably good thing, but now you may ask, good thing, where have you gone?

Diet Sprite has been a mainstay among sugar-free soft drinks for 30 years. It has spent its three lemon-lime decades refreshing its hardy band of drinkers and not bothering anybody else. It developed in the way diet soft drinks have tended to: it was a low-calorie version of the “regular” brand. If you like Sprite, but you don’t like sugar, drink Diet Sprite. There wasn’t much else to think about.

But Coke has decided to give it a good deal of thought. Diet Sprite didn’t have to be merely a thing. It could be something. Something more. Or, taken literally, something less. Taken to the extreme, it could be nothing.

Meet Diet Sprite Zero. It’s all about nothing and wears it proudly.

As you may have heard, this is Coca-Cola’s attempt to amplify one of its quieter supporting players. Since the early ’90s, when equities like lymon and liking the Sprite in you (anybody remember the charming commercials that starred MTV alum Martha Quinn?) gave way to the Image Means Nothing, Thirst Means Everything campaign, Sprite stopped being about delicate lemon-lime refreshment and all about getting in the face of youths, urban and urban-leaning. Lots of basketball, lots of bounce, lots of orders to Obey Your Thirst. Diet Sprite? It was churned out with no noticeable effort or personality behind it.

In a bubbly carbonated soft drink pool, that was enough. But the reality of the 2000s has marketers scratching and clawing for every point, squeezing every drop of growth out of every label. All brands on deck.

Sprite was certainly a candidate for pumping up the volume a couple of years ago. In the previous decade, it and Mountain Dew and Dr Pepper wrote a non-cola success story based on sating Alternative Nation, that swath of the population that wants something out of the ordinary, CSD style. In a way, they were riding the same wave as Snapple over in the New Age nebula. Neat trick for old sodas. Of the three, Sprite came off as the breakout brand, riding the commodity called edge to, for a while, the No. 1 spot among all non-colas. As a bonus, Sprite once and for all shook off the historical specter of 7 UP, which was probably the better recognized lemon-lime as late as 1990 even though Sprite had long ago surpassed it in sales.

But like the rest of full-calorie carbonatia, these brands eased from a gush to a trickle around 2000. Heretofore growth engines, these pops needed tune-ups: mend them, extend them, vend them, lend them a little cachet.

Brand Sprite’s been in makeover mode for a spell. Crisped graphics. New commercials. An NBA superstar for the next generation-Kobe pass the rock to LeBron. A large if side component of the overall effort has been devoted to Sprite Remix, the flavored-for-now extension that won trial in 2003-and 2004 by remixing the Remix from Tropical to Berryclear. The tastes and their accompanying vibe have meshed with Sprite’s urban adventures.

Which brings us back to Diet Sprite, which hasn’t. Diet soft drinks are suburban by nature. They’re somewhere to the right of your face. Less LeBron “King” James and more Kevin “King of Queens” James. Its numbers have reflected its sugar-free if glamour-free existence.

On one hand, Diet Sprite is filed in the stacks of the Coke brand library. It was the company’s eleventh-best selling label in 2003, behind regional Mr. PiBB, sophomore Vanilla Coke and ethnically targeted Fanta, to name three. It was only slightly larger than new Sprite Remix, on which Diet Sprite had a 29-year head start. At the same time, Sprite, enduring CSD fatigue and Sierra Mist’s distribution swell, lost 5% of its 2002 volume, according to Beverage Marketing Corporation.

But there was another hand, and on that one, we learned Diet Sprite volume rose 6%. Six percent gained by just kind of hanging around and taking care of thirsts. It enjoyed the glow of the Remix halo, maybe, and the diet CSD spike, definitely. Diet Coke was up 5% from a bigger base and diet soft drinks in general rose by 5.6 percent, said BMC.

Coke figured this was no time to sit back and wait to see what external forces ebbed or flowed Diet Sprite’s tide. Something was better than nothing, though nothing is the implicit message of a brand rechristened Diet Sprite Zero.

Zero is what’s its been called in some international markets, and it feels just right to Coke for U.S. use. Beyond measuring its inherent carbs, sugars and caffeine (zero on all three counts), it puts forth a nice bit of modesty in a field where horn-blowing is usually the rule. In the ’90s, image was nothing. Today, Zero is something.

Relative to marketing rules that called for plenty, that’s something else.

Greg W. Prince ( has covered the beverage business as a reporter and editor for more than 15 years.