DIET COKE HAS TASTE FOR OLD TAG

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Diet Coke may be headed back to the future.

"This is refreshment," the theme line introduced for the No. 3 soft-drink brand in January, is likely to be canned as Coca-Cola Co. considers resurrecting "Just for the taste of it," industry executives say.

Coca-Cola Chief Marketing Officer Sergio Zyman is said to want to revive the successful theme he championed 12 years ago or adapt a similar one. "This is refreshment" was conceived by Lowe & Partners/SMS, New York, in the agency's first effort for Diet Coke.

"The core equity of the product is taste," said one executive familiar with Mr. Zyman's plans, adding that the current theme line doesn't differentiate Diet Coke from other soft drinks.

When asked about a new theme line, a Coca-Cola spokesman said only: "Taste has always been part of Diet Coke-since 1982 when Diet Coke first began." The spokesman wouldn't speculate on the refreshment tagline's future.

Agency executives refused to comment.

Lowe took the estimated $70 million account away from sister Interpublic Group of Cos. agency Lintas after an unofficial review last October. Lintas, which had handled the brand since its creation, lost the business after the Diet Coke "Taste it all" campaign was killed within weeks of a January 1993 debut.

The brand then went without TV advertising for nearly a year. Diet Coke ad spending was $23.5 million last year, down 63.6% from 1992's $64.5 million, according to Competitive Media Reporting.

The soft-drink giant is now seeking a way to regain momentum for the brand within the maturing market. For the 52 weeks ended March 31, supermarket sales of Diet Coke were up 1.7% to $753 million, while caffeine-free Diet Coke was down 1.9% to $359.5 million, industry sources say.

Although it's unclear how the Diet Coke campaign would evolve under a new theme, a second executive familiar with Mr. Zyman's plans said only that the tagline will change in the short term. The creative executions will remain much the same.

"The strategy will be the same, but it will be a different look," a third industry executive said. "It will be Lowe's look."

The last spot in the "Taste" campaign broke in July 1992 and used computer technology to depict singer Paula Abdul dancing with Gene Kelly and Groucho Marx.

The Lowe effort is best known for the "Diet Coke Break" commercial featuring women in an office ogling shirtless Diet Coke drinker Lucky Vanous.

Diet Coke trouble would be a headache Lowe doesn't need. The shop, with '93 billings of $500 million, was hailed as the agency to watch when it won Diet Coke. But Lowe has since failed to score several major accounts in which it was a finalist, including Burger King Corp., Digital Equipment Corp. and the U.S. Postal Service.

Early this month, the agency's $60 million Citibank credit card account went into review.

This year, Lowe picked up Paddington Corp.'s Malibu rum account and, from subsidiary Martin Agency, Richmond, Va., a portion of Mercedes-Benz of North America's $30 million regional work.

Frank Lowe, chairman of the parent Lowe Group, is said to be orchestrating some management changes aimed at strengthening the shop, including a search for additional creative firepower.

Emily DeNitto contributed to this story.

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