Can Diet Coke’s New Skinny, Rainbow-Colored Cans Attract the Millennials It Covets?

A reboot 2 years in the making

Diet Coke is debuting a new look and 4 new flavors. Diet Coke

Thirty-five years after making a splash with the introduction of Diet Coke, the Coca-Cola company announced that the marquee product is getting a “full brand restage.” Starting next month, consumers who pass by the beverage case will see Diet Coke in new product dress: A skinny silver can sporting a bold center stripe whose colors correspond to four new flavors.

According to a company statement, the new look and taste are aimed at “re-energizing and modernizing Diet Coke for a new generation of drinkers.”

The most noticeable part of the rebranding will be the package design, which Coke developed with a creative assist from U.K.-based shop Kenyon Weston. Though the new cans contain 12 fluid ounces just like their older counterparts, they sport a slender profile that’s more evocative of Red Bull or Starbucks Refreshers than mom’s standby diet soft drink. (Diet Coke’s original packaging will not be discontinued; the new cans will instead be offered as an option in the existing lineup.)

While slender cans may function as a kind of subliminal cue to the low-calorie beverage inside, Cola-Cola North America’s group director for Diet Coke Rafael Acevedo told Adweek that his team chose the new cans for another reason. “It makes the brand feel more contemporary,” he said. “It modernizes the brand and makes it feel very premium.”

Cola-Cola devoted no fewer than two years in this effort, an obvious measure of the project’s importance. “We tried to behave very entrepreneurially and move as fast as we could,” Acevedo said. “But when you’re recasting the second largest brand in the company you want to make sure you get it right.”

The retooling project was based on intelligence gathered from interviews with 10,000 consumers who were queried for their opinions on both packaging styles and, perhaps even more importantly, flavors. After testing 30 new varieties, the company finally settled on four: Ginger Lime, Twisted Mango, Feisty Cherry and Zesty Blood Orange.

As the names suggest, the goal here is to appeal to the taste buds and the discernment of younger consumers, who have been steadily drifting toward energy drinks and flavored waters. Indeed, soda consumption overall has been slipping for over a decade now, and an in-house study released by Beverage Digest in April of last year noted that while sales of Diet Pepsi have suffered the most (slipping 9.2 percent), Diet Coke’s volume had fallen by 4.3 percent.

Acevedo denied that Coke undertook the strategy as a direct response to those market pressures, saying instead that it “was more driven by the consumer versus the competition. Younger consumers are longing for new experiences and bolder flavors and innovation. In order for us to be relevant for the younger audience, we need to evolve with them.”

Dustin Longstreth, chief marketing and chief strategy officer of brand and design agency CBX, agrees that there’s a need for that evolution. “There is a population of the current generation of consumers that are probably suspicious of soft drink formulations in general—they equate it with something unnatural and overly processed product. Simultaneously, it is a category that continues to grow through increasingly bold and innovative flavor experiences. In the case of Diet Coke, they clearly sought to stay true to who they are to appeal to their Diet Coke loyalists while also giving prospective new consumers an interesting excuse to give it a try.”

If all goes as Coke hopes, part of that interesting excuse will come from an accompanying marketing campaign to kick off next month from creative shop Anomaly. While Acevedo would not part with many details about the work, he said, “it’ll have the essence of Diet Coke, but the personality of the brand is evolving and modernizing.” In addition, Diet Coke will depart from its traditional focus on female consumers—historically, the core buyer of diet beverages—and roll out a creative effort that “will be more gender neutral.”

Time will tell, of course, if consumers cotton to the changes, but Hayes Roth, principal of branding shop HA Roth Consulting, believes that they were worth making. While many beverage brands are tinkering with new flavors, he points out, the new packaging “will set them apart. I’d say it’s a bold, smart move, and they’re covering themselves because they’re keeping the original size [can.] The old Coke can looks dated by comparison.”

One significant thing that won’t change is Diet Coke’s original formula—a fact the company took pains to make clear in the second line of its news release: “No, the one-and-only Diet Coke is not being reformulated.”

The advisory appears to be a thinly-veiled reference to the 1985 launch of New Coke—which remains the greatest product fumble in history with the possible exception of the Ford Edsel.

Intended to improve on the then 99-year old Coca-Cola formula, New Coke was supposed to transform and revolutionize the product. Instead, it sent consumers scrambling to stock up on the original Coke and overloaded the company switchboard with 8,000 complaint calls a day—a “firestorm of consumer protest,” the company acknowledges today.

“We’ve had the opportunity to learn through the years that if you have something great you don’t mess with that,” Acevedo said. “We know we have a loyal following that loves the taste and we want it to be super clear that we don’t want to change that great taste.”

@UpperEastRob Robert Klara is a senior editor, brands at Adweek, where he specializes in covering the evolution and impact of brands.