Diet Dr. Pepper Touts New Message: It’s Just Dessert

After 14 years of stressing that Diet Dr. Pepper tastes as good as the regular, Cadbury Schweppes is shifting its brand message from one tailored to constant dieters to one intended to attract younger, occasional users of sugar-free drinks in an estimated $35 million campaign breaking this week.

“Instead of comparing Diet Dr. Pepper to other diet drinks, we compare it to desserts,” said Scott Larson, evp, ecd at Young & Rubicam. “But it is important to keep it pop, optimistic and tongue-in-cheek for the humor to work. The soda pop category needs to be fun.” He said the change in creative direction gets the advertising closer to the truth of the brand. “We’ve gotten closer to the benefit of the product than ‘lifestyle’ [communications].”

Print, outdoor, radio and three television spots by WPP Group’s Y&R San Francisco—two of which break this week—treat the soda as just another forbidden treat. Cans roll out of gumball machines. A baker lifts rows of cans from his cooling rack. A cop digs one out of a doughnut box. A voiceover (“Treat yourself to the rich, decadent taste of Diet Dr. Pepper”) concludes with the new tagline, “There’s nothing diet about it.”

A second spot, cut in 15- and 30-second executions, has a birthday-party theme, with cans falling out of piñatas and holding candles. A third spot, “Ice Cream,” breaking in March, features the cherry-vanilla flavor introduced last year and treats the soda as ice cream, forming the bedrock of a banana split. The entire campaign uses Tom Jones’ 1968 hit “Help Yourself” to set the mood.

Despite what Shaun Nichols, director of advertising, called the “retro-chic appeal of Tom Jones” that should maintain the brand’s base, the company wants to broaden out beyond the soda’s standard “slightly older,” largely female skew, he said. Mediaedge:cia is adding youth-oriented channels such as Comedy Central, VH1, MTV and UPN to the brand’s schedule.

Nichols said the brand only has 15 percent household penetration and has plenty of growth potential with “transitionals,” or “kids coming out of college after gaining the ‘freshman 15,’ and slightly older men who are not going cold turkey into diet drinks,” she said. “They’re just dabbling in diet. The message is that they’re not giving up anything here.”

Plano, Texas-based Cadbury Schweppes spent $30 million on measured media for the brand in 2004, and more than $20 million through October 2005, per Nielsen Monitor-Plus.

“Diet Dr. Pepper has had a tremendous record of growth, especially in the last three years. It was up 16 percent, making it the fastest-growing top-10 brand in 2004. It slowed in 2005, but for a reason that’s good for Cadbury: We see migration to Diet Dr. Pepper Cherry Vanilla, which we don’t include in those figures.”