S finds niche as diet gourmet soda

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Diet drinks are going gourmet.

Triarc Beverages Co.'s Stewart Beverages is moving away from its nostalgic image with the simply named S, a carbonated fruit drink positioned as the first exclusively low-cal gourmet flavor line. "There isn't an upscale diet soda on the market," said Sam Simpson, CEO of the Triarc Beverage Co. unit, noting that the competition mainly carries diet drinks as a line extension.

At just 5 calories or less, the drinks come in Black Raspberry, Orchard Peach, Ruby Red, Vanilla Cream and Wild Cherry flavors. Departing from its old-fashioned fountain drink roots, the new sodas are packaged in 11-ounce sleek, clear glass bottles, with the label etched in white. A four-pack sells for $3.29 to $3.49.

In addition to its gourmet flavors, the key point of difference for the line, said Mr. Simpson, is that it is sweetened with sucralose and Ace-K, which eliminates the "diet taste." Since many consumers consider diet a four-letter word, the company sampled the sodas in blind tests using mocked-up bottles minus the word diet on the label.

The drinks are being introduced in 33 markets, mostly in the Midwest and Mid-Atlantic states. Until the line achieves a critical mass in distribution, the company is taking a wait-and-see attitude about advertising, said Eliot Kaufman, VP-marketing at Stewart. "Once we've reached a certain number of accounts, we'll try radio, billboards, sampling, the Internet and sponsorship -- a grass-roots strategy," he said. The company currently doesn't have an agency of record.

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