Opinion: Why Sprite Green Matters

Coca-Cola has announced Sprite Green will debut this month in New York and Chicago. This lemon-lime flavored, low-calorie beverage will be the first major brand to hit the market made from rebaudioside A. Derived from the South American stevia plant, Reb-A is the key ingredient behind Coke’s Truvia sweetener which will also be used in some of its Odwalla ultrapremium juices.

Reb-A sweeteners were approved by the Federal Drug Administration last week and the beverage giants have been poised and ready to strike with Reb-A products.

The success or failure of these sweeteners could have great impact. Why? First off, the sluggish beverage category is in dire need of some big news. Secondly, New York Gov. Patterson’s proposed 18 percent tax on nondiet sodas and juices is looming. Meant to combat obesity, the passage of Patterson’s proposal in New York would be yet another punch in the face for flagship brands like Coke and Pepsi.

Soda pop had fallen on hard times well before the economy went to hell. Consumer tastes have shifted, as have their sensibilities. They want more natural and, in many cases, more functional benefits from their drinks. Sprite Green and others built around Reb-A satisfy their desire not to imbibe artificial sweeteners.

PepsiCo’s zero-calorie Sobe LifeWater hits on both the natural and functional benefits. LifeWater desperately wanted to be first to market with a Reb-A sweetener (it uses PureVia).

A PureVia version debuted in Peru earlier this year. It also hit some shelves in Indianapolis last week, just so it could  officially be the first product to be sold in the U.S. with Reb-A. (Coke disputes this saying that, in fact, its Odwalla products were first).

This public relations move was strongly reminiscent of the last great trend, flavored sodas. The day before Vanilla Coke’s launch, Pepsi invited a who’s who of beverage journalists to its headquarters to unveil Pepsi Blue. A flurry of flavor innovations would follow with Pepsi Blue among the most miserable of failures.

Still, there is a big difference between a brand like LifeWater and Sprite. The expectation with LifeWater is that you’re getting an enhanced beverage like Vitaminwater. Plus, this me-too product has a much smaller share and much less to lose.

Sprite, on the other hand, is the seventh largest carbonated soft drink brand in the land. It sold half a billion cases in the U.S. last year, per Beverage Digest. Sprite Green likely will receive massive distribution and massive trial.

Others will soon follow. PepsiCo also is planning a reduced calorie Tropicana beverage using Reb-A while the Dr Pepper Snapple Group has said pending launches are imminent.

The initial flurry of new products should set the record straight about Reb-A’s taste fairly quickly. Early reports said it had a licorice aftertaste.

Presuming its taste profile has been ironed out; Reb-A will allow the beverage giants to skirt Patterson’s proposed beverage tax for full-calorie beverages while also generating some much-needed buzz for the category.

Remember that consumers were excited when Splenda hit the market. A number of drinks were quickly reformulated using the popular sweetener.

Coke was the first to overextend itself, creating market confusion by placing both Diet Coke and Diet Coke with Splenda on shelves. Sprite Green, which is 50 calories and 5 percent lemon juice per serving, may or may not have that problem. The word green clearly connotes natural. However, it also carries a lot of baggage that Coke is going to have to contend with.

Assuming Sprite Green is a tasty (and successful) product, it is possible that many other products will be reformulated, as was the case with Splenda. Who knows, maybe even Diet Pepsi Coke and Diet Pepsi will go all natural.

Either that or Sprite Green will end up just being the next Pepsi Blue.