The Prince of Beverages: Stealth Sodas

@@img1The Prince of Beverages
By Greg W. Prince

Letters. We get letters. Or, more accurately, we download e-mails. The most recent one to the P of B came from Debbie, who indicated a desire for more caffeine-free beverages to flood the market.

Debbie, thanks for writing in. You got me thinking about one of the most common complaints I hear from civilians. They don’t drink soda or don’t let their kids drink it because of caffeine concerns. Given those concerns-and they are more than anecdotal in this world-we see caffeine-free versions of sodas that are traditionally caffeinated, particularly colas. We see them but we hear little about them.

Caffeine-freedom may be one of the great untapped marketing opportunities in the fizz biz. Not unlike diet soda (as described in a previous column), CF colas were placed on shelves with the goal of covering of bases. If somebody wanted a Coke or a Pepsi-or, more likely, a Diet Coke or a Diet Pepsi-but had some concerns about staying awake, here was a way to keep folks in the franchise. Why should cola let go of a single, potential drinker?

Explicitly caffeine-free carbonated soft drinks are barely out of their adolescence, particularly when compared to their older, diet siblings. When caffeine-free colas first emerged in the early ’80s, there was a little bit of pizzazz accompanying their arrival. RC 100 and Pepsi Free attempted to bring branding to the emerging segment. RC 100 went on to its reward-its name describing its approximate number of consumers-while Pepsi Free, is best remembered as a punchline from Back to the Future (“you want a Pepsi, pal, you’re gonna pay for it”).

The thinking some 20 years ago was with the leading edge of the Baby Boomers coming up on 40, that the Pepsi Generation and its Coke counterpart, would ease off its carbonated soft drink consumption. One way to stem that tide was to offer them options. At the time, nobody was thinking seriously that the ultimate caffeine-free refreshment beverage, water, would become a viable, mainstream option.

But nobody gave enough thought to establishing caffeine-free colas. This was the period when Coke was giddily extending its trademark for the first time ever. Caffeine Free Diet Coke and Caffeine Free Coca-Cola were powerful enough names, so perhaps that tilted the industry away from growing buzzless brands on their own power. Pepsi Free morphed into Caffeine Free Pepsi and RC’s greatest innovation, Diet Rite (not only no sugar and no caffeine, but no sodium) was lost in the shuffle of behemoths.

Caffeine-free, of course, had been a selling point for non-colas.Uncolas, in particular. Before too many people worried about caffeine, 7 UP reminded everybody that it didn’t have any of it. Decaf coffee was making a breakthrough around the same time, so the message resonated even if 7 UP wouldn’t forever (but don’t blame its caffeine status for that). The CF version of Diet Coke has been a consistent member of the Top 10 soft drinks club year-in and year-out.

About 1.7% of all CSD volume in 2003, according to Beverage Marketing Corporation, belonged to Caffeine Free Diet Coke, the eighth most consumed soda pop in the United States. Think about that for a second-almost 2% of the business goes to a brand that receives no singular support. When was the last time you saw a commercial or even a piece of merchandising material devoted to Caffeine Free Diet Coke? In 1994, amid a flurry of Diet Coke spots-most notably Lucky Vanous taking his shirt off for his late-morning Diet Coke break-Coke produced one ad specifically on behalf of the caffeine-free iteration. It involved an old man sipping on some CFDC and acting a little frisky as a result. Aside from that one (which was that rarest of creatures, a commercial featuring an old person not looking ridiculous or seeking life insurance), I can’t think of another.

It’s testament to Coke’s distribution might and sterling brand equity that it can manufacture a soft drink as practically an afterthought and have it outsell all but seven other brands in the entire country. It also hints at what caffeine-free cola could do if given enough of a boost.

Debbie from the e-mail wanted to know about Coca-Cola C2, specifically if there would be a caffeine-free version of that. Debbie, I doubt it. Slicing the cola nut as thin as C2 (like Pepsi with Edge) has, it would take too many steps to explain to the casual beverage consumer that this is a cola, but it’s not a diet, yet it’s not a regular and it has fewer carbs than Coca-Cola and fewer calories, of course, and, oh by the way, now this one here also has no caffeine, unlike that one over there, which does.

Hardcore bevheads could make the distinction, but like the voters in deep red or deep blue states, we’re not the targets.

Makes me wonder, though, why Coke and Pepsi didn’t go all the way in the “lesser” direction and reduce or eliminate caffeine from their mid-cals. If they are really going after a diet-conscious group that doesn’t want traditional diet cola, this might have given them a little more cred with this crowd. C2 and Pepsi Edge have the same amount of caffeine as their respective progenitors, Coke and Pepsi. Coke is still running the C2 commercials to the Queen song that declares, “I want to break free.” Caffeine-free is a logical extension of that message.

But to be fair, there was that other ad, with “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” by the Stones. Their message: If you try sometimes, you just might find, you get what you need. Many of us who consume colas or diet colas, particularly by the dawn’s early light, need the caffeine. We don’t drink coffee but we need something. We don’t want as much as what’s found in Red Bull or Jolt Cola. And we’re not particularly interested in alco-energy hybrids like the just-announced B-to-the-E, Budweiser with something Extra (caffeine providing most of that addendum). Certainly not in the morning.

Let’s face it: Caffeine is not something anybody wants in and of itself, but a lot of people need, or at least perceive that they do. Curiosities like those mentioned above can get away with hyping their buzz factor, but the really big brands consider themselves best served by laying low on the topic.

That begs this question: Why not play up the colas that contain no caffeine at all?

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