Diet Coke Returns to Oscars, Prioritizes Existing Customers

Brand Will Debut Two New Spots on Sunday

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Diet Coke remains stuck in a sales slump along with the rest of the diet soda category. But the prolonged downturn has not kept Coca-Cola from spending big on the nation's second-largest soda brand.

The newest investment will come Sunday when Diet Coke runs three ads during the Academy Awards, including two new spots. The buy marks a return to the broadcast for Coca-Cola. The marketer sat out last year's event as PepsiCo took over as the exclusive soft-drink advertiser. Still, Coke caught a lucky break last year when its brand name was shown on pizza boxes during an in-show bit orchestrated by host Ellen DeGeneres.

The 2015 Oscars ads are a significant investment, considering ABC has been fetching as much as $2 million for 30-seconds of ad time. Brand Coke is also planning to run an ad.

"This is one element of our bigger strategy to connect to loyal users that love Diet Coke," said Rafael Acevedo, Group Director for Diet Coke, Coca-Cola North America, noting that the brand has a history of advertising during the awards. Diet Coke, he added, is "prioritizing people who already have a standing relationship with the brand."

The ads will continue the brand's taste-focused "Get a Taste" campaign by Droga5 that launched last fall. Two new 15-second ads are focused on the liquid. One spot (above), is called "Tall, Dark and Handsome." Another ad, called "Afternoon Delight," shows an extreme close-up of an icy coke, with a clock showing the time as 3 p.m. The third ad is a 30-second ad that first ran last year called "Economy Class."

Taylor Swift starred in an ad soon after the "Get a Taste" campaign launched. She is not in the new ads. But Mr. Acevedo said "we still have a longstanding relationship with Taylor," adding she will "continue to be part of our initiatives going forward."

On social media, Diet Coke is giving away special "crystalized" Diet Coke bottles. Fans can enter a chance to win one by tweeting their predictions of some of the key Oscar winners and using the hashtag #GetATasteSweeps.

Coca-Cola executives declined to reveal detailed spending plans for Diet Coke in 2015. But Mr. Acevedo said the new ads are part of an increased investment that started in 2014. Diet Coke got $35.8 million in measured media support for the first nine months of 2014, according to the latest figures from Kantar Media.

By contrast, rival Diet Pepsi spent $350,700 on measured media during the same period. Recently Diet Pepsi has not run dedicated TV advertising. Instead, the Pepsi trademark has taken a portfolio approach that touts multiple varieties together.

Diet Coke "is a big and important brand for Coke," said John Sicher, editor and publisher of Beverage Digest. "It has not been doing well due to headwinds hitting the diet segment, largely from some consumers' concerns about aspartame," he added. But "Coke needs to try and improve the performance of this brand. It isn't clear to me that marketing will do the trick, but the attempt must be made."

In 2011, Diet Coke surpassed Pepsi to become America's second-largest soda brand behind Coke. While Beverage Digest has not finalized its 2014 industry sales data, Mr. Sicher said it will be a close call as to whether Diet Coke holds onto the No. 2 spot or falls back as a result of the sluggish diet trends.

Coke's diet colas volume fell 7.1% in January, compared with a 6.6% decline in December, according to a recent Beverage Digest report. Pepsi fared worse, with its diet colas down 9.2% in January.

"The No. 1 thing we see from consumers is a complaint about aspartame," Al Carey, CEO for PepsiCo Americas Beverages, said this week during a presentation at a meeting of the Consumer Analyst Group of New York. "I'd say that diet business stays down for a while. We have some ideas about how we might address it." But it's a "definite drag on the business."

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