Fight for Sprite Will Include Newcomers

It’s not often that independent shops off the roster get a shot at business from the marketer of the world’s most famous brand.

Several creative independents are among those being invited to pitch ideas for Sprite, the latest Coca-Cola brand to look beyond its main agency for ideas. And the game clock is ticking. Presentations are set for mid-August, as Coke wants to have a Sprite campaign to show bottlers in October, sources said, adding that the soda marketer is looking for new ways to appeal to the hip, young soda drinker.

Sources said the search for fresh ideas was initiated by Chris Lowe and Esther Lee. Lowe is chief marketing officer of North America; Lee joined Coke as chief creative officer of North America in late 2002 and was previously a partner at DiNoto Lee. Now known simply as DiNoto, the New York agency is among those Coke is considering to present ideas.

Coke representative Dan Schafer confirmed that the list also includes nonroster independents WongDoody in Seattle and Modernista! in Boston, along with Wieden + Kennedy in Portland, Ore., which handles Powerade, and Sprite incumbent Ogilvy & Mather, New York, owned by the WPP Group. An Ogilvy rep declined comment. Executives at the other agencies either could not be reached or referred calls to the client.

Schafer said Ogilvy will remain Sprite’s lead agency. “It’s just a quest for new, fresh, additional ideas and perspectives,” he said. “We want to be sure we’re getting the biggest and best ideas, and we very much want to see what Ogilvy has.”

However, when Coke has brought nonroster shops into the mix in recent years, incumbents have not always fared well. In 1999, when the company looked for ideas on Coke Classic beyond then-independent Leo Burnett and Interpublic Group’s McCann-Erickson, independent Cliff Freeman and Partners ended up with the business. Likewise, in 2002, after Coke invited WPP’s Berlin Cameron/Red Cell to help McCann with Classic strategy, Berlin eventually won lead creative duties and produced the “Real” campaign.

Ogilvy was not a Coke roster shop when it was invited to present ideas on Sprite in the summer of 2001. It won the brand from Interpublic’s Lowe by the fall.

Sprite remains the clear leader in the carbonated lemon-lime soft-drink category, with a 40 percent share in supermarkets. However, volume dipped 4 percent through mid-April of this year, compared with the same period in 2002, according to Beverage Digest. Cadbury Schweppes’ 7-Up is second with a 16 percent share, with volume down nearly 5 percent. PepsiCo’s Sierra Mist, launched nationally last year, is third with a 12 percent share, with volume up more than 120 percent from January through mid-April.

Ad spending on Sprite fell from $85 million in 2000 to $45 million last year, according to TNS Media Intelligence/CMR. Spending through April of this year was $15 million. Spending on 7-Up was $34 million in 2002 and $12 million through April 2003. Spending on Sierra Mist was $25 million last year and $25 million through April of this year, per CMR.

WPP’s Young & Rubicam is 7-Up’s agency. Omnicom’s BBDO handles Sierra Mist.

Schafer declined to comment on Sprite’s dip in volume or the level of advertising support for the brand.

In March, following restructuring and layoffs at Atlanta-based Coke, Sprite’s longtime brand vp Darryl Cobbin moved into Coke’s entertainment marketing division, ceding responsibility for Sprite to Alison Lewis, who is now vp of Sprite and flavors for Coca-Cola North America. Cobbin was the architect of the “Obey your thirst” campaign, which launched in 1994 via Lowe. Also in March of this year, John Carroll moved from operational marketing to become group director of Sprite.

As the new stewards of the brand, “they all have something to prove,” one source said.

“Sprite’s a great brand that has been in decline and needs a strong shot in the arm,” said John Sicher, Beverage Digest editor and publisher. “It hasn’t had as aggressive a push as it needed since the early 1990s.”

“Obey your thirst” evolved last year to include the line, “What’s your thirst?” The brand uses Kobe Bryant as a spokesperson. Ogilvy’s most recent Sprite work, “Portraits in Thirst,” highlights real people’s passions.