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Uh-oh! Diet Pepsi, BBDO stir up Cola wars as Coke readies mid-calorie drink. By Alison Fahe

Although Diet Coke has temporarily retreated, the cola ad wars are bound to get uglier as Pepsi-Cola and longtime agency

Pepsi is currently testing a marketing and advertising program that highlights the freshness of Diet Pepsi in what amounts to a veiled comparison to its competitors. At the same time, Pepsi and BBDO are mapping a 1994 assault on Coca-Cola in what sources said could be the most extensive comparative image ad campaign pitting Diet Pepsi against Diet Coke.
Add to the mix the likelihood that Diet Coke inevitably will awaken from its marketing slumber with a vengeance, and the anticipated introduction in 1994 of a mid-calorie cola from Coke that combines aspartame and sugar, and the diet cola wars will be raging again soon.
In Omaha, Neb. Pepsi has been quietly testing a program touting the freshness of Diet Pepsi. Both Diet Pepsi and Diet Coke are sweetened with NutraSweet, an ingredient which tends to lose its sweetness in liquids after four months or so, changing the taste of the finished product. In Omaha, Pepsi has revamped the typically cryptic codes found on its diet colas so that they are readable to consumers. Then the line “For best taste, drink by date on bottom of can” has been added to packaging.
Pepsi has even gone so far as to produce a television spot, from BBDO, to support the effort, as well as radio and point-of-purchase materials.
A Pepsi spokesman confirmed the Omaha test and noted that in about four other markets codes have been similarly changed. But only in Omaha “have we taken it one step further to consumers,” he said.
While observers agree that the move is a bold one, some contend that it could backfire.
“It’s pretty bold and pretty risky,” said Jack Trout, president of Trout & Reis, a marketing consultancy, Greenwich, Conn. “But you are implying that this stuff goes bad. You don’t want to bring up those issues.”
Tom Pirko, president of Bevmark said, “The upside is that this is a new edge that could differentiate one diet product from the next. The downside is that you’re saying that at some point your product becomes obsolete.”
Pirko said the move carries an implicit comparative message against Diet Coke. “If one is telling consumers it’s the freshest, then they are saying the other guy’s can’t be. You plant major seeds of doubt.”
Coca-Cola is conducting a similar product test in Omaha, but it is not being supported with advertising. Company spokesperson Bob Bertini said the test shows so far that the issue is not of great importance to consumers because soda turns over rapidly so it doesn’t often go bad.
A NutraSweet spokesperson said it supports its customers efforts to insure the freshest products.
Meanwhile, BBDO is feverishly working on all new Pepsi advertising for 1994 in order to give bottlers a taste of the new stuff in early October.
As part of that process, BBDO is producing about six new Diet Pepsi television spots that mention Diet Coke directly and/or show the leading diet cola brand, sources said.
While Diet Pepsi ads have occasionally taken jabs at Diet Coke, Pepsi has traditionally sent its flagship brand to the frontlines to battle Coca-Cola, as seen in the “Pepsi Challenge” campaign that was based on taste tests.
Rather than a diet version of the groundbreaking Pepsi Challenge, one source said the new Diet Pepsi campaign is more along the lines of Pepsi’s combative “Shady Acres” commercial which portrayed Pepsi as hipper than Coke.
In that spot, which aired in 1990 members of a fraternity play chess and nap after drinking Cokes while the old folks at a retirement home begin dancing and skateboarding after sipping Pepsis.
One source said Pepsi and BBDO are trying to take advantage of Diet Coke’s absence. The brand’s major 1993 advertising campaign has been off the air since February and went virtually unsupported this summer.
But that should quickly change under new Coke marketing chief Sergio Zyman.
Copyright Adweek L.P. (1993)