Low-calorie colas to heavy up on ads

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Diet colas promise to be the heavyweights in the beverage arena in 1999.

For nearly a decade, the diet segment of the $54 billion soft-drink business had been losing heft. Now, the top brands are showing new signs of growth and stand to post further sales increases this year via a raft of new TV commercials.

Today, Coca-Cola Co. debuts its first Diet Coke ads since archrival Pepsi-Cola Co.'s $100 million launch last October of Pepsi One.

The Diet Coke spots mark a change in lead creative agency for the nation's third-largest soft drink. Wieden & Kennedy, Portland, Ore., was tapped for the new work; the brand had been housed at Lowe & Partners/SMS, New York, since 1993.

Coca-Cola declined to discuss spending. According to Competitive Media Reporting, expenditures have been erratic on the brand, ranging from $62 million in 1994 to $22 million through the first nine months of '98.

PEPSI ONE ON SUPER BOWL

Next to hit the air for diet colas is a new Pepsi One commercial that will debut during the Super Bowl telecast Jan. 31. It will feature pitchman Cuba Gooding Jr.

That will be followed by new commercials expected in the spring for Diet Pepsi.

Both brands are handled by BBDO Worldwide.

The Diet Pepsi work may feature a new theme line to replace "This is diet?"

Pepsi-Cola spent $13.8 million on Diet Pepsi through the first nine months of '98, according to CMR.

"It's going to be an exciting year for the diet sector [with] Coke making changes to its advertising," said Manny Goldman, a securities analyst with Merrill Lynch & Co. "They obviously haven't been enamored with what they've shown in the recent past, and they are . . . doing something about it."

'LIVE YOUR LIFE'

The Diet Coke advertising introduces a new theme line, "Live your life," and what Coca-Cola officials call a shift in focus from looking good to feeling good.

One 30-second spot shows a woman making a video for a dating service who realizes she's happy with her life the way it is. Another commercial shows a woman craftily staging a pickup, eyeing a handsome guy at a dusty rest stop.

The new theme is Diet Coke's fifth over the course of six years. "Taste it all" (1993) was replaced by "This is refreshment" ('94); that bowed to a revival of "Just for the taste of it" ('96) only to be canned by "You are what you drink" ('97), the last of these from Lowe.

Lowe declined to comment on the shift to Wieden. Coca-Cola executives stressed that Lowe remains on the Diet Coke roster and could be tapped later to do more work for the brand.

Lowe continues as the lead agency for Coca-Cola's Sprite brand.

For the near term, though, Wieden is it. This is the shop's second round of work for Diet Coke; it was hired on a project basis to produce a campaign introduced last February that drew shrugs.

That advertising showed a father trying to explain the facts of life to his daughter, and a "Seinfeld"-like family trapped in an urban kitchen.

TOO 'CEREBRAL'

Ian Rowden, VP-director of advertising at Coca-Cola, called that work too "cerebral," but added that it reflected early strategies emerging from extensive consumer research on Diet Coke. After the effort was pulled, spots Lowe created in 1996 were resurrected.

Observers say it's too early to gauge the success of Pepsi One, the first major new product to be launched in the diet cola segment in years. Whether the brand is eating into sales of Diet Pepsi or Diet Coke is difficult to judge at this early stage.

Diet cola sales were up 4% last year before the Pepsi One launch, the first significant increase since 1991, according to figures from Information Resources Inc. quoted by industry analysts. In the four-week period ended Dec. 6, diet soft-drink sales rose 13% compared with the same period a year earlier.

Coca-Cola said that U.S. sales of Diet Coke rose 4% through November.

Copyright December 1998, Crain Communications Inc.

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