Coming into 2018, the Coca-Cola Co. faced a choice: Keep shoveling marketing dollars into a slumping Diet Coke, or give up on a brand that seemed way past its prime.
The marketer opted to go all-in back in January with the biggest product and marketing makeover in Diet Coke's 36-year history. The push included new flavors, a packaging overhaul and an expensive ad campaign by Anomaly aimed at broadening the brand's traditional consumer base beyond baby-boomer women.
The decision paid off: U.S. dollar sales for Diet Coke were up more than 2 percent through the last week in October, according to Nielsen data cited by the company. That's a big turnaround, considering that Diet Coke's sales had fallen 3.7 percent in the 52 weeks ending Dec. 2, 2017.
"Diet Coke's future looked dim, in large part because millennials just weren't interested," says Duane Stanford, executive editor of Beverage Digest. "To their credit, Coca-Cola's marketers decided to own the adversity rather than wallow in it. That meant adding modern flavors and creating advertising that gave young consumers permission to try Diet Coke."
The overhaul includes varieties like Feisty Cherry and Ginger Lime packed in new slim cans. When it came to ads, the campaign avoided A-list pop stars like Taylor Swift who have backed the brand in the past, opting instead for a diverse cast of up-and-comers like Karan Soni, an Indian-American actor known for his supporting role in "Deadpool."
Rafael Acevedo, Coca-Cola North America's group director for Diet Coke, credited the "synergy of all those elements working together" for luring new drinkers to the brand.
But it isn't simply Diet Coke that landed the company on this list. Coca-Cola's investment in Coke Zero in 2017 has continued to pay dividends. And the company has won accolades for promoting diversity and inclusion both internally and in its ads. The marketer also advanced its portfolio beyond soft drinks, which carry baggage over health concerns.
Coke Zero, which was renamed Coke Zero Sugar in mid-2017, is backed by a straightforward ad campaign by Fitzco/McCann that plugs it as tasting just like regular Coke but without the sugar. The product posted its best quarter of sales growth in 10 years in the three-month period ending Sept. 28, the company reported. Meanwhile, trademark Coca-Cola, which includes all varieties, grew 3 percent globally in that same three-month period.
The upswing comes nearly three years after Coke unleashed its "Taste the Feeling" global campaign, which uses a "one-brand" approach uniting multiple Coke varieties within a single ad. The ads are more product-focused than the previous "Open Happiness" campaign.
But Coke has still found ways to make big societal statements. With a 2018 Super Bowl ad by Wieden & Kennedy called "The Wonder of Us," Coke used the gender-neutral "them" to refer to a nonbinary person. The spot drew praise from GLAAD, which directed heart emojis at Coke during the game. This strategy succeeded because Coke backs it up with workplace policies that have earned it a perfect rating from the Human Rights Campaign for 12 years running.
The spot kept a product-first approach by touting multiple Coke varieties, but it "allowed us to talk about our values of diversity and inclusion by promoting the notion that there are as many ways to enjoy a Coke as there are people," says Brynn Bardacke, Coke's VP for content and creative excellence.
Coca-Cola is also making strides in diversifying its portfolio beyond soda. The company's Venturing and Emerging Brands unit (VEB), which is structured to identify and nurture brands with $1 billion sales potential, is leading these efforts. In late 2017, VEB acquired Topo Chico, a trendy premium sparkling mineral water, and in August of this year it took an ownership stake in the sports drink Body Armor. The latter brand, the backers of which include Kobe Bryant, has made inroads on PepsiCo's
Gatorade by touting natural flavors and sweeteners with ads including star athletes such as James Harden.