ten years ago, Sprite was a laggard niche brand, as seemingly lost in time as its kitschy "limon" symbol, plucked out of the fertile imagination of a dated Madison Avenue era. While competitors like 7 Up attempted to stand out through initiatives like "The Uncola" campaign, Sprite stuck with selling itself as a clear, lemon-lime soft drink in a category of clear, lemon-lime soft drinks. Then came Coca-Cola troubleshooter Sergio Zyman. As a consultant, he turned his attention to the troubled beverage in 1992. He discovered Sprite consumers didn't even like its citrus taste. They drank it because of its cheeky unconventionality. So Coca-Cola threw out the brand's very reason for being—a lemon-lime alternative to the company's core colas—and infused it with attitude. That move quickly resonated with target urban teens and African Americans.
Relaunched in 1994 as a mainstream brand, Sprite became the carbonated-beverage category's fastest-growing brand for five of the past six years. Now it's the country's sixth most-popular soft drink, having slipped behind rival Mountain Dew. En route, Sprite's advertising picked up a slew of top awards, including an Addy, Andy, Effie gold, Clios and an Art Directors Club gold.
Rather than have advertising play off product attributes, advertising became the product attribute. "Image is nothing. Thirst is everything. Obey your thirst," one of Sprite's early repositioning taglines from Lintas & Partners, served as a sly wink at the role the brand's ads played in reviving its fortunes. Image, as it turns out, is everything.
"As a result [of the repositioning], in four years [Sprite] sales tripled … We did it by changing only the extrinsics of how people thought about the product, without touching the intrinsics of what was inside the can or bottle," Zyman wrote in The End of Marketing as We Know It.
Sprite agency Burrell Communications Group had discovered as much after it began using hip-hop's Curtis Blow and rappers like Heavy D in Sprite campaigns targeting urban markets. The music served as a vehicle for self-expression, first appearing in Burrell's ads in 1984 and crossing over to Sprite's general advertising two years later.
"In the '80s, we added a 'cool' factor to the brand," says McGhee Williams, evp/managing director of marketing innovations at Burrell. "It was a fresh approach in advertising for African Americans, but it was bigger than just African Americans. Things like hip-hop, rap and new jack swing are as much a cultural force as they are music."
Growth in flavored beverages is outpacing that of colas in general. Sprite's high-profile success, plus its association with the hip-hop lifestyle, is helping to fuel a lemon-lime marketing battle that is quickly replacing the cola wars.
"During the '90s, overall cola growth slowed. A large [reason for] that was the growth in flavored brands, thanks to very good marketing and advertising from Sprite and Mountain Dew," contends John Sicher, editor and publisher of Beverage Digest.
In 1999, the citrus category grew 2 percent, topping the flat results of cola drinks in a sluggish carbonated-beverage marketplace. Lemon-lime sodas now account for about $6.5 billion in annual retail sales, or about 11 percent of the U.S. market for sodas. PepsiCo is eyeing those growth opportunities—and the chance to narrow the gap between itself and Coca-Cola—with the lemon-lime launch of Sierra Mist in October, the company's first major new carbonated soft-drink trademark in 16 years. (Turnabout is fair play: In Zyman's original view of the repositioning, Sprite's "attitude" strategy gave Coca-Cola the chance to step on Pepsi's marketing turf of choice and change.)
Still, it's not going to be easy: Sprite commands a 58 percent market share. The brand's competitors are betting they can lure consumers away from the category leader. Pepsi is pouring $50 million into Sierra Mist while Cadbury Schweppes is increasing 7 Up ad spending 15 percent to $40 million.
Sprite continues to outspend those competitors, putting almost $70 million behind the ongoing, no-pretense "Obey your thirst" strategy.
"With 'Obey,' we've become so much more connected with teens. The teen years are a very awkward time, and this is a way for us to say: 'Trust your instincts. Be true to yourself whether you're choosing a soft drink or a path in life,' " explains Pina Sciarra, Sprite's brand director. "It's a straightforward, honest message: 'We're just a soft drink. We're not going to make you a better windsurfer.' We've never strayed from that core message, and we don't plan to now. It's continued to evolve, but we've always stayed on point."
The brand grew up with the early advent of hip-hop and has become so identified with it that hip-hop magazine Blaze described Sprite as one of the genre's three top elements.
Given Sprite's skew toward male consumers, promotional tie-ins were a key part of the turnaround. Zyman saw an opportunity to create strong links with sporting events, common with bigger flagship beverages like Coke and Pepsi. He struck a deal with the National Basketball Association after promising commissioner David Stern that Sprite would spend lots of money on cross-promotional efforts. Sprite boosted its promotional efforts this year.
It created a contest offering the chance for a one-on-one game with Team USA's NBA players who participated in the 2000 Olympics and reupped for sponsorship of the Billboard Music Awards. The brand hopes to further solidify its hold on teens through a new partnership with RocketCash, an Internet e-tailer gateway that helped create Sprite.com. Sprite drinkers receive RocketCash codes under bottle caps and can use those codes as online currency. Sprite also has tie-ins with Polo Jeans and Tommy Hilfiger, another brand whose success is tied to the hip-hop culture. Less clear is Sprite's current movie tie-in debut with How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Backed by $10 million in on-air and merchandising efforts, Sprite is trying to outdo sister brand Coke during this holiday season.
Atlanta-based Coca-Cola explains the association by pointing out the plot's anti-Santa positioning is in sync with Sprite's attitude. The link also plays off mutual association with the color green and the parent company's pre-existing marketing pact with the film's distributor, Universal Studios.
Such efforts to bond with consumers faced an unexpected challenge this year when a group of former and current black Coca-Cola employees organized a boycott after suing the parent company over alleged bias in compensation and promotions. Black consumers make up 36 percent of Sprite's customer base, and the brand was the initial target of the boycott, which recently ended when Coca-Cola settled with the group. The boycott was called in May. By the end of that month, Sprite was on the air with a new diversity campaign from Burrell that directly confronted issues of race and class. The campaign continued the "Obey your thirst" theme, but added the line, "What are you thinkin'?" The spots featured hip-hop stars Beanie Sigel, Mos Def, Pharoahe Monch and Lord Finesse and addressed racial stereotypes. Sprite consumers were urged to be true to themselves.
"This is an honest brand for honest people. Teens see things for what they are. The drink and the drinker share the same instincts with 'Obey your thirst,' " contends Dean Hacohen, evp/creative director at Lowe Lintas. "This is not your father's cola."