Coke Zero Wants College Football Fans to 'Drink' Its Ads

Brand Emphasizes Trial With Interactive TV Spots

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Since launching 10 years ago, Coke Zero has performed on some of the biggest stages in advertising, including the Super Bowl and March Madness. But the no-calorie soda, which became a $1 billion global brand in 2007, has not put a ton of effort into one of the most basic tactics in marketing in the U.S.: driving trial via sampling.

That is beginning to change this year as Zero pours more energy behind what the brand calls a "first-of-its-kind drinkable marketing campaign." The effort began earlier this year during the Final Four and will return in a larger way this fall as part of an advertising partnership with ESPN's "College Gameday" college football pregame show.

The campaign, called "You Don't Know Zero 'Til You've Tried it," will be refreshed with 10 new football-themed spots. Several ads include ESPN personalities such as Lee Corso and Kirk Herbstreit and will call for viewers to open the Shazam app on their mobile phone and hold it near the ad. The Coke Zero pouring on TV will appear to pour into a glass on the smartphone and the viewer will be delivered a coupon for a free 20-ounce bottle redeemable at retailers including 7-Eleven, QuickTrip, Speedway and Domino's. (The new ad above is not "drinkable.")

A similar "drinkable" ad, which first ran during the Final Four earlier this year, will also be put into rotation again this fall. The goal is to drive trial of the beverage and expand its base of loyal consumers who skew slightly male. The ads are by Ogilvy, New York.

In effect, the approach seeks to bring traditional sampling to the digital world. According to the company, the "drinkable" spots have driven more conversion than typical in-store sampling. While such a potentially large-scale sampling effort might seem unusual for a 10-year-old brand, Coke execs believe Zero is still relatively young, and will benefit from the awareness boost.

"We have done extensive consumer research and have shown that when people try Coke Zero, the majority of them convert to be loyal users," said Racquel Mason, VP of Coca-Cola and Coca-Cola Zero at Coca-Cola North America. "A lot of our [previous] advertising was great -- but it wasn't focused on the 'try' message."

The effort comes as the brand continues to try to expand its male twenty-something target to a broader bullseye of men and women ages 25 to 45 who are concerned about calorie intake. "Most of our target audience hasn't tried it," Ms. Mason said.

The U.S. trial push follows aggressive sampling efforts in Europe in recent years.

Early signs show the approach might be working. In the second quarter, which followed the Final Four push, Coke Zero global sales volume grew by 6%, following 5% growth in the first quarter, the company reported in its earnings.

In the U.S., the brand finished 2014 as the 10th-largest soda with 1.8% share, after volume fell by 2%, according to Beverage Digest. That far outpaced rival Pepsi Max, which saw volume fall 23% to 0.2% share. While Diet Coke is larger than Coke Zero, Diet Coke volume fell by 6.6% last year, according to Beverage Digest. Coke Zero, marketed as "real Coke taste with zero calories" is sweetened with aspartame.

"While Coke Zero has been challenged of late along with the broader cola segment, it remains a tough competitor for Diet Pepsi and a key brand for Coca-Cola as the company works to win back Diet Coke loyalists," Beverage Digest editor Duane Stanford said in an email.

Coke Zero: Drinkable Billboard 15
Coke Zero: Drinkable Billboard 15

As part of the football push, Coke Zero plans to bring back the "drinkable billboard" that debuted at the Final Four in Indianapolis and station it at some of the college campus sites hosting the weekly "College Gameday" show. The 26-by-36 foot billboard is made to look as if Coke Zero is pouring out of a bottle through 4,500 feet of straw, emptying into a real sampling station on the ground.

New elements of the football campaign include "drinkable jerseys" that the brand will give to select college students at the "Gameday" sites. Fans who Shazam a logo on the jersey will get a coupon for a free bottle. Also planned is a social media campaign with "drinkable content," including coupons that will be tied in with the "Gameday" broadcast and a brand-sponsored "Section Zero" seating area during the show.

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