"If you're not fond of fake, try Sierra Mist Natural," a voice-over says, as a cardboard cutout of a Sprite can falls over.
For awhile it seemed directly comparative ads had petered out -- think Domino's CEO burning Subway's cease-and-desist letter in a spot or Campbell's and Progresso duking it out over MSG -- in a trend that landed some players at the NAD or in court. But the strategy is alive and well in the soft-drink category, where Sierra Mist Natural is taking a direct jab at lemon-lime leader Sprite.
The strategy veers away from Sierra Mist Natural's original advertising path, which featured lush outdoor settings where talking rocks and trees discussed the merits of the soda. But the tagline, "The soda nature would drink, if nature drank soda," didn't exactly spell out the brand attributes for consumers.
"It was a great way to put Sierra Mist Natural on the map. The ads were cute, funny," said Kristina Mangelsdorf, VP-natural and flavored sodas at PepsiCo, marketer of Sierra Mist Natural, of the original campaign. "But we found that they were not hard-hitting enough on the real point of difference in the product. People didn't understand why it was different from other lemon-lime sodas."
It'd hard to miss that now, given the PepsiCo brand makes it crystal clear that Coca-Cola's Sprite uses high-fructose corn syrup and artificial preservatives, while Sierra Mist Natural does not.
The brand called in several Omnicom shops earlier this year as it sought to fine tune its messaging. DDB Worldwide, Chicago came out on top, beating out incumbent Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, San Francisco. The win is a coup for DDB, which had a limited presence on PepsiCo's roster, made sweeter by the fact that spending behind Sierra Mist Natural is expected to double in 2011. The brand spent $24 million on measured media last year, according to Kantar.
Goodby was behind new packaging graphics for Sierra Mist Natural, which replaced Sierra Mist last September. Those graphics have since been updated by the brand. The package now features more green, rather than white, so that it's not mistaken for a diet soda, and a red banner highlights that the brand has "no artificial ingredients." Diet Sierra Mist uses a blend of aspartame and Ace-K.
"We have a complicated message to communicate. That's what we learned in the first round of advertising," Ms. Mangelsdorf said. "It's not a simple proposition to advertise, so we talked to a couple of other agencies and looked for the best possible work to communicate the message."
It's the second time in recent memory that one of PepsiCo's beverages has turned to the time-honored strategy of comparing itself to the other guy. Last summer an ad began running that compared Pepsi Max to Coke Zero. Since then the Pepsi Max and Coke Zero drivers have appeared in ads that pit the two brands against each other. To some extent, the approach seems to be working. Both brands continue to grow at a rapid pace, with Pepsi Max posting an 81% jump in volume during the fourth quarter, while Coke Zero saw a 13% rise in volume, according to Beverage Digest. Pepsi Max is building on a much smaller base, however, controlling just 0.7% share of the carbonated soft-drink market, compared to Coke Zero's 1.9% share.
Still, despite the fact that some consumers haven't fully understood Sierra Mist Natural's positioning, sales are on the mend. According to Beverage Digest, the brand's volume was down 6.5% in the fourth quarter, which is an improvement over recent trends. In 2009, volume fell 14%. Ms. Mangelsdorf, citing IRI data, said that the brand's lemon-lime flavor (it also has a Cranberry Splash version) was down 8% in volume headed into the launch and is now up 10% year to date.
The lemon-lime category overall is also growing, after years of neglect from the major brands. According to IRI, lemon-lime sodas have gained half a share point in the overall carbonated soft-drink category, year-to-date. In 2010, Sprite, Sierra Mist Natural and 7Up all launched major campaigns and updated packaging. Lemon-lime sodas account for about 10% of the overall carbonated soft-drink market. John Sicher, editor and publisher of Beverage Digest, said that Sierra Mist's "natural" push does differentiate the brand from Sprite and 7Up. "It will give some consumers a reason to try it, if they've been drinking Sprite or 7Up," he said. "But whether they stick with it remains to be seen."
In addition to the competitive spot, another 15-second spot is slated to begin running later this month. That commercial, while similar in tone, does not include Sierra Mist Natural's competitors.
Ms. Mangelsdorf said the brand doesn't have plans to go after 7Up, the third-largest lemon-lime brand. Sprite is the seventh-largest carbonated soft-drink brand, controlling about 4% of the category, according to Beverage Digest. Sierra Mist Natural controls just over 1% of the soda category.
As for Coca-Cola, which has taken and given its share of jabs in the past, it doesn't seem scared. Said a spokeswoman: "For more than 50 years, people have loved the great lemon-lime taste of Sprite, and nothing will change that."