Coke, Pepsi Jump on Zero-Cal Sweetener Reb-A

But Marketing Ingredient Could Lead to Consumer Confusion

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- A new zero-calorie sweetener could boost the beverage industry -- if only it can figure out how to market products containing the ingredient.

Sprite's coming Green product creates a new calorie midrange tier between its regular and diet versions.
Sprite's coming Green product creates a new calorie midrange tier between its regular and diet versions.
Variety of tacks
Coca-Cola and PepsiCo are rolling out products this month that will feature proprietary versions of Rebaudioside A, known as Reb-A. Neither company would discuss specific marketing plans for the new products, which will include line extensions of the Sprite, Odwalla, SoBe and Tropicana brands. But industry experts said advertising messages are almost certain to take a variety of forms, and the products themselves could lead to confusion among consumers.

While consumers are accustomed to "diet" drinks containing a single calorie or none at all -- and some of these new Reb-A products are likely to fill that bill -- other products with the sweetener will represent a calorie midrange. Sprite's coming Green product, for example, has "50% fewer calories than regular sodas," creating a new tier between its regular and diet versions.

Two brand benefits
In addition, there is not just one, but two brand benefits to consider for marketing. John Sicher, editor and publisher of Beverage Digest, said some of the new beverages will likely be marketed as lower calorie, while others will be promoted as all natural. "The marketing and messaging is probably not going to be uniform," he said. "There's not one single way of marketing these new beverages."

Those pitching the products would be wise to focus on education and sampling efforts to hook consumers, said Gary Hemphill, managing director and chief operating officer at Beverage Marketing. "In this case, because the ingredient is the differentiation of the product, it will be important to educate consumers about the value and the benefit of the sweetener," he said. "The key is to get people to get out and try these products and see for themselves that the products have a superior taste."

Thus far, much of the education efforts are being left to the sweetener manufacturers. Cargill, which developed the ingredient it's calling Truvia with Coca-Cola, launched a consumer campaign this week. And PepsiCo partner Merisant is promoting what it's termed PureVia through a dedicated website and a public-relations campaign. Coca-Cola and PepsiCo's products will feature the sweetener logos on packaging.

Sweet salvation?
The Food and Drug Administration declared Reb-A safe for use in food and beverages late Wednesday. Reb-A is a highly purified form of the stevia plant, which previously had been approved by the FDA as a dietary supplement.

Excitement about the sweetener has been building for months in the embattled sector. Many consider Reb-A to be the answer to the beverage industry's woes, as it is both zero-calorie and all-natural. But others urge caution, and executives, including Messrs. Sicher and Hemphill, said it is unlikely Reb-A will find its way into flagship brands such as Diet Coke or Diet Pepsi.

"I'm there like everyone else praying stevia is the holy grail, but there is no holy grail," said Joe Tripodi, chief marketing and commercial officer for Coca-Cola at this week's Beverage Digest conference. "Sometimes the hype gets ahead of the reality, and we have to do a gut check."

PepsiCo's launches include three flavors of a zero-calorie SoBe Lifewater.
PepsiCo's launches include three flavors of a zero-calorie SoBe Lifewater.
A Morgan Stanley survey found that 22% of consumers are extremely interested in trying beverages using the sweetener, while 36% are somewhat interested. Still, 42% of those surveyed said they are not interested in trying beverages with Reb-A. Those consumers cited a myriad of issues ranging from safety and health concerns to taste to a preference for sugar.

Targeting millennials
PepsiCo's launches include three flavors of a zero-calorie SoBe Lifewater, as well as Trop50, a reduced-calorie and -sugar orange juice.

Rick Gomez, VP-hydration at Pepsi-Cola North America Beverages, said that outreach and public-relations efforts are under way for the new SoBe line. "We have developed an aggressive, complete marketing plan that targets millennials. Wherever millennials are, we want to be a part of that conversation," he said. "We think this is a game changer. This is a big innovation. We're giving consumers what they want: a zero-calorie, naturally sweetened product."

Mr. Gomez declined to discuss any plans for measured media to support the new lines; the campaign is being handled by Arnell Group.

A Coca-Cola spokesman said there will be a seeding and sampling effort behind Sprite Green this year, but there are no creative campaigns yet. An agency has not been assigned to work on the brand at this point. A spokesman for Odwalla said there are no marketing plans behind the brand's new products, which tout "half the calories and sugar of regular juice drinks."

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