Coca-Cola: 125 Years

Coke's Foray Into Light Was Do or Diet

With Consumers Moving Away From Full-Calorie Sodas and the Company's U.S. Business in a Rut, Coca-Cola Needed a Big Idea

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Coke's first-ever trademark extension rejuvenated the company's business in the U.S. when it launched in 1982. Now, nearly three decades later, Diet Coke has overtaken Pepsi as the No. 2 sparkling soft-drink brand in the U.S., second only to Coca-Cola. John Farrell, chief strategy officer at Coca-Cola, was one of four entrepreneurial architects of Diet Coke. We asked him to reflect on the launch of what Ad Age later named the "Brand of the Decade."

In 1981, I agreed to work on a project that had percolated within the halls of The Coca-Cola Company for two decades but never seen the light of day -- to introduce a "diet" version of Coca-Cola. Like the others on the team, I had to agree to the top-secret assignment without knowing what it was.

Until that point, extending the Coca-Cola trademark to another brand had been a big no-no. But times were changing. Sparkling soft-drink consumers were moving to low/no-calorie brands, and our business in the U.S. was coming off one of the toughest decades we'd ever seen.

Diet Coke, called Coca-Cola Light in some markets, is sold in 173 countries around the world and has a 32% share of the global diet sparkling-beverage segment.
Diet Coke, called Coca-Cola Light in some markets, is sold in 173 countries around the world and has a 32% share of the global diet sparkling-beverage segment.

Colas accounted for 60% of all soft-drink sales in the U.S. at the time, but diet drinks were growing three times faster than the rest of the category. Despite concern that we would cannibalize Tab -- which was the top diet soft-drink brand in the U.S. -- and erode the long-term health of the Coca-Cola trademark, our research showed just the opposite. Diet Coke was the right product at the right time.

Our agency partners at SSC&B created the ad campaign that would introduce and sustain the brand in its first year. We positioned Diet Coke as a great-tasting soft drink that happened to have one calorie, rather than a diet soft drink that happened to taste great.

The "Just for the Taste of It" tagline communicated everything anyone needed to know about the product. It became our mantra, driving our decision-making on everything from packaging graphics to in-store merchandising to billboards.

Extensive research revealed several insights that steered our initial marketing strategy. For example, when we asked consumers which celebrities they thought would drink Diet Coke, they responded with masculine names such as Ronald Reagan, John Wayne, Joe Namath and Telly Savalas. We knew we had to target men as much as women.

And we knew that our first TV spot had to define the character of the brand and make it clear that Diet Coke was a beverage unlike anything anyone had ever tasted. Coca-Cola USA President Brian Dyson told SSC&B's creative director that he expected the advertising equivalent of putting a man on the moon. Having just heard the news that Princess Diana had given birth to William, our team leader, Jack Carew, pitched the idea that Diet Coke was "heir to the throne of Coca-Cola." A few days later, the agency came to Atlanta with storyboards. Dyson had his moon shot.

The star-studded spot called "Premier" was filmed in July 1982 at Radio City Music Hall after a gala event for bottlers and key customers. I remember staying there until 4 a.m., when production finally wrapped after 42 takes. "Premier" carried the mystique of the Oscars with the brand's name in lights on the marquee, footage of the iconic Rockettes performing, and the voice-over, "Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the world premier of a great new soft drink called Diet Coke."

The ad connected with consumers on an emotional level, ultimately leading to strong purchase behavior. By the end of 1983, Diet Coke was the No. 1 diet soft drink in the U.S. and the top soft drink brand among women. The following year, Diet Coke displaced 7UP as the No. 3 soft drink in the U.S. -- a position it held until the end of 2010, when it overtook Pepsi.

John Farrell has held major operating roles in North America, Europe and Asia since joining Coca-Cola in 1979. As VP-chief strategy officer, he leads the development of the company's overall strategy and global planning process.
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