NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Pepsi Max is hoping the third time's a charm.
Since launching in the U.S. in 2007 the product has undergone a name change, packaging updates and two separate relaunches that have confused its brand identity. Last year, it attained only a 0.4% share of the U.S. carbonated soft-drink market, according to Beverage Digest, compared to 1.7% for the more firmly established Coke Zero.
Now Pepsi Max is pursuing a positioning it hopes will finally replicate its success overseas: Comparing itself to the other guy.
To be fair, neither Pepsi Max nor Coke Zero has had an easy time navigating a full-flavored, no-calorie soft drink segment aimed at drawing more men to their franchises. As such, Pepsi has been on and off the "diet" kick in its labeling and even Coke changed its early pitch from a general "Everybody Chill" to focus more on the calorie-free aspect of the beverage. "It was a learning lesson," said Coca-Cola spokeswoman Susan Stribling.
"There's definitely some baggage in the word 'diet.' It focuses on what's not in the product vs. what's in the product," said Lauren Hobart, chief marketing officer of sparkling brands at PepsiCo.
In 2007 PepsiCo, initially, poured as much as $55 million into marketing Diet Pepsi Max as a cross between a cola and an energy drink with the "Wake Up, People!" campaign from BBDO, New York. Some two years later the brand shifted gears, dropping the word "diet" from its name, though it continued to promote itself as the "diet cola for men" in a Super Bowl campaign dubbed, "I'm Good" from TBWA/Chiat/Day.
Ms. Hobart said she was unable to comment on the thinking behind those campaigns because she was not working on the brand at the time but said, "When you're launching a new brand, you sometimes have to iterate the position to nail what's going to get your message out in the clearest way."
She added: "We have a crystal-clear positioning now."
That positioning -- "Zero calories, maximum taste" -- drops the word diet from its messaging altogether. "Not having diet on the can, the challenge is on us to communicate that it also has zero calories," Ms. Hobart said.
As part of its effort to do that, Pepsi Max has revived a 1995 spot that shows a Pepsi driver and a Coke driver sampling the competition. In the new spot, Coke Zero and Pepsi Max are pitted against one another, with the Coke Zero driver sampling and enjoying a Pepsi Max -- before he realizes the rival driver is filming him for YouTube. Ms. Hobart said that consumers should "expect to see the playful rivalry come to life in future executions. ... We love that it's lighting a fire in the cola wars."
Coke, for its part, couldn't resist zinging its competitor when asked about the campaign from TBWA/Chiat/Day for Max. "Clearly Pepsi was looking for a rising star to appear in their latest commercial when they chose to feature Coke Zero," said Ms. Stribling. "We're actually pretty flattered."
It's no mistake that Pepsi Max has launched a comparative ad campaign. After all, its rival in Atlanta has carved out a nice business for itself in the zero-calorie, full-flavor category. Coke Zero, introduced in 2005, has proven to be one of the most-successful product launches in the company's history. It is now the 12th largest cola brand in the $73.9 billion U.S. carbonated soft-drink market, according to Beverage Digest, more than four times larger than Pepsi Max.
Still, there's plenty of money to be made in the category. As consumers become more conscious of their waistlines and colas struggle to maintain their place in Americans' diets, zero-calorie, full-flavored beverages like Pepsi Max and Coke Zero could represent a huge opportunity. "Though [the new advertising] will help Pepsi Max, I don't think it will hurt Coke Zero," said John Sicher, editor and publisher of Beverage Digest.