A LESSON COKE SHOULD LEARN

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It should not surprise astute product marketers that Pepsi-Cola Co.'s Mountain Dew is edging close to Coca-Cola Co.'s Diet Coke for third place in U.S. soft drink sales. It's the result of sound, long-term thinking and a steady hand at the marketing wheel. That's something Diet Coke hasn't had in recent years.

The real surprise in this story happened years ago, when Pepsi successfully rid the Mountain Dew brand of its "hillbilly" image -- somewhat evident in its name -- and made it mean something entirely different to a new generation of young people. With a steady eye on the teen market's "edge" group, Pepsi has kept the brand's edge with those hip consumers by keeping its advertising and promotion consistently keyed to a constantly moving target. Skate boarding, then extreme snow boarding: Dew is always doing it, and doing it right.

Diet Coke, meanwhile, has gone through four agencies and several ad campaigns since 1993.

Mountain Dew's market share gains also have been steady: from 3.7% in 1989 to 6.3 in 1997 with never a dip. Last year, it came in at 6.7%, not far behind Diet Coke. As of March 21 this year, Mountain Dew was at 6.9% compared to Diet Coke's 7.1%. It's not hard to see where this is heading.

Coca-Cola has tried hard to compete. Its Mello Yello just never made it out of a Southeastern niche despite much effort. Most recently, a new brand, Surge, has been tested and expanded to new markets. But at last report it already is showing declines.

Interestingly, what Surge seems to have done is juice Pepsi bottlers to get behind Mountain Dew even more than they might have been doing; Pepsi executives, too, since the company boosted ad spending last year and is planning another increased investment next year.

Despite bigger ad budgets, the message here is not about spending. Mountain Dew is adequately supported, to be sure, but the lesson is one of consistent support, consistent mission.

We'll bet Mountain Dew brand managers have changed over the recent years, maybe

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