Watch the Spot

Can Dr Pepper's Mid-Cal Soda Score a 10 With Men?

With 'Testosterone Zones,' Muscled Commando, Brand Looks to Avoid Earlier Marketing Missteps by Pepsi Max, Coke Zero

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Dr Pepper doesn't want there to be any confusion. Its new 10-calorie soda is simply "Not for Women."

Dr Pepper Ten has distinct packaging aimed at men.
Dr Pepper Ten has distinct packaging aimed at men.

Dr Pepper Ten, a reduced-calorie soda, is unapologetically targeting men, a bold move in a category that has had its fair share of marketing missteps. Coke Zero and Pepsi Max, both billed as full-flavored sodas with zero calories, had difficulty nailing down the right message for a diet product that's meant to appeal to men.

Aware of those missteps, Dr Pepper is rolling out an extensive test campaign for the new product, its packaging and marketing. Dave Fleming, director-marketing at Dr Pepper, called the test, which runs from now through June, "elaborate," saying the strategy is atypical for the company, though he declined to discuss his competitors' forays in the space. Coke Zero appeals to men via a Nascar partnership and movies such as "Tron: Legacy" and Pepsi Max through its sponsorship of the NFL, though neither explicitly proclaim they are men's products. Pepsi Max scrapped its "diet cola for men" tag last year.

Dr Pepper Ten was created for 25- to 34-year-old men who prefer regular Dr Pepper but want fewer calories. And its inclusion of 10 calories, rather than zero like its competitors, allowed it to deliver a flavor closer to the regular version, Mr. Fleming says.

"We have a lot of excitement about this and wanted to give it fair treatment, so it would resemble a national launch in test markets," he said. "We want to make sure that, if we do take this national, we understand all the variables."

To that end, Dr Pepper Ten will be trotted out with commercials created by Interpublic Group of Cos.' Deutsch, Los Angeles, which also handled out-of-home, digital and in-store efforts. A mobile "Man Cave" will also travel to each of six test markets, including Denver and Colorado Springs, Colo.; Des Moines, Iowa; Kansas City, Mo.; and San Antonio and Austin, Texas. The branded trailer will set up in "testosterone zones" such as ball fields or car shows and give men a place to watch TV and play video games. Mr. Fleming declined to comment on the budget for the effort, though he said it resembles what the brand would spend for a national launch, on a local basis. Interpublic's Initiative handled media buying.

The packaging and marketing are both heavy on masculinity, but also clearly state the brand proposition, something Coke Zero and Pepsi Max struggled with. Coke Zero's first campaign, "Everybody Chill," left consumers confused, as did Pepsi Max's original billing as a diet drink that was a cross between an energy drink and a cola.

On the can, a slate gray background is offset by Dr Pepper's logo and a red box proclaiming the product's "10 Bold Tasting Calories." The commercial features a muscled commando type sprinting through the jungle dodging lasers and toting a space-age weapon. "Hey ladies, enjoying the film?" he asks. "'Course not. Because this is our movie, and Dr Pepper Ten is our soda." He signs off by telling women everywhere they can "keep the romantic comedies and lady drinks."

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Mr. Fleming said he's not out to alienate women, that the goal is to be direct and have fun. "Did we have a conversation about how far we wanted to go with this message? Absolutely," he said. "But we did the research, and it scored well with men and women."

In theory, so-called mid-calorie sodas will appeal equally to men and women, with a sweet spot among 25- to 34-year-olds, said Bill Pecoriello, CEO of Consumer Edge Research. But he points out that Dr Pepper Ten is clearly intended to appeal to the target market staked out by Coke Zero and Pepsi Max. Both brands have found success. Pepsi Max became PepsiCo's 19th billion-dollar brand in 2009, and Coke Zero is one of Coke's most successful launches ever, consistently posting double-digit sales gains.

Mid-calorie sodas such as Dr Pepper Ten could be just the boost the struggling soft-drink category needs, as consumers look to trim calories from their diets and health advocates blame the fizzy drinks for obesity and diabetes. Earlier efforts, including C2 and Pepsi Edge, flopped, but now some in the industry believe this in-between category could appeal to consumers, said John Sicher, editor and publisher of Beverage Digest. "I think that full-calorie beverages continue to have difficult headwinds," Mr. Sicher said. "The performance we're seeing from brands like Coke Zero, Diet Mtn Dew and Diet Dr Pepper indicates that diets and perhaps mid-cals may be the future route to growth for the soda category."

Mr. Fleming hedged when asked what sort of potential Dr Pepper Ten could have, saying only that the company is "very excited" and would be closely watching the test markets to see how consumers react to the product and the marketing.

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