Remember Mello Yello? Citrus Soda Plots a Comeback

Sponsorship of National Hot Rod Association Gives Brand a National Platform

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Mello Yello NHRA-branded can
Mello Yello NHRA-branded can

For much of the U.S., Mello Yello is a brand they may have heard of but never spotted in the wild.

Launched nationally in 1979 as the "World's Fastest Soft Drink" with ties to the National Hot Rod Association, the citrus soda gained rockstar status in 1990 when Tom Cruise drove the Mello Yello car in the "Days of Thunder" movie. Fast forward a decade and the brand's popularity began to wane as parent company Coca-Cola launched new citrus brands. Mello Yello was relegated to more of a regional role, with primary distribution in the Southeast and Midwest.

Now, the brand is making a comeback, with Coca-Cola relaunching it nationally in 2010 and beginning to invest in earnest this year. Mello Yello recently went back to its roots, taking over the NHRA sponsorship from Coca-Cola sibling Full Throttle and launching a campaign, including TV, radio and updated packaging. The bulk of its marketing budget is dedicated to huge amounts of sampling -- handing out cans to thousands of race attendees, many of whom are experiencing the brand for the first time.

"It's a great opportunity to engage with new fans but also connect with fans who had tried it before or maybe forgot about it," said Al Rondon, senior sports marketing manager at Coca-Cola North America Group. "There are a lot of folks who may have never tried Mello Yello, especially out west where it's not as developed."

The new partnership with NHRA has given the brand a national platform, with 24 races taking place from New Hampshire to Florida, California to Kansas. Mr. Rondon says the deal has helped Mello Yello to "amplify" its retail efforts, with extensive programs at outlets including Circle K, Walmart and Domino's. The brand works with Melt, Atlanta, on creative, as well as Red Moon on program and event activation.

"The brand never went away, but we hadn't really put a big marketing effort behind it," Mr. Rondon said. "It's rejuvenated the bottlers, because they felt like we hadn't done anything with the brand. Now putting Mello Yello on a core, strategic partnership like NHRA shows we are putting resources behind it."

Advertising Age Player

Mello Yello is also looking to stake a slightly different claim this time around, aiming to attract a more diverse audience than simply the teen consumers it targeted in the 1990s. Mr. Rondon says that while NHRA has a strong male fan base and is a good way to target males 18 to 49, it also appeals to women. The sport is also more ethnically diverse than Nascar and IndyCar, with a strong following among the African-American and Hispanic communities.

Going after a broader target market could also help the brand distinguish itself from PepsiCo's Mtn Dew, which is extremely popular with teens and younger consumers. Last year, Mello Yello outperformed the carbonated soft drink industry, with a 3% increase in volume, according to Beverage Digest. Volume is down single digits in the first half of this year, however.

Mello Yello is the No. 3 player in the citrus category behind Mtn Dew and Sun Drop, which is marketed by Dr Pepper Snapple Group. According to Beverage Digest, Mello Yello moved 43 million cases last year; by comparison Mtn Dew moved 628 million cases.

"Mtn Dew is one of the strongest and best marketed brands in the business, and the Coke bottlers need an entry to compete with it," explained John Sicher, editor and publisher of Beverage Digest. "But even for Coke, competing with Mtn Dew is no easy task."

Indeed, Coca-Cola has for years tried various tactics to compete with the fast-growing Mtn Dew brand. In 2009, the company launched an audacious promotion, offering consumers a free sample of Vault to anyone who bought Mtn Dew. Vault has since been discontinued as Coca-Cola seeks to focus its energies in the citrus category on Mello Yello.

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