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Triarc's Royal Crown Co. will seek to boost its ailing Diet Rite Cola brand by leveraging a relationship with healthcare giant Johnson & Johnson.

The medical marketing approach is an unusual strategy for the cola wars but could help Diet Rite differentiate itself enough to avoid being squashed by its much larger rivals.

J&J is one of the suppliers for a new blend of sweeteners for Diet Rite that will hit stores early next year. The ingredient, sucralose, will be blended with Ace-K, the sweetener used in Pepsi-Cola Co.'s year-old Pepsi One diet cola. Both sugar substitutes won U.S. government approval in 1998.

For now, Diet Rite is first on the block with the blend, said Royal Crown President John Belsito.

The soda will be targeted to an underserved segment in the $56.3 billion U.S. soft-drink business: women ages 40 to 60. Since it can't compete with Diet Coke and Diet Pepsi, Mr. Belsito said a niche approach for Diet Rite makes sense.

"We think there's a whole medical-marketing opportunity," he said. "Because of J&J's experience in that field, we think that can be leveraged." He said no plans have been finalized.

Diet Rite appeals to the health-conscious, he said, because it has no sugar, no caffeine and no sodium.

Diet Rite Cola last year claimed a minuscule 0.3% share of the U.S. beverage business, and is not among the top 10 diet soda brands, according to Beverage Marketing Corp.

The cola will be backed by national magazine ads early next year in such publications as McCall's, Modern Maturity, People, Redbook and Weight Watchers.

Blum Group, New York, handles Diet Rite's estimated $3.5 million account. This is the first time in four years Diet Rite has had a national ad campaign.


The new Diet Rite sweetener replaces the aspartame used in most diet sodas, including category kings Diet Coke and Diet Pepsi. Many industry observers predict that blends such as Diet Rite's will become more prevalent in sodas as supply issues are ironed out. Royal Crown's own Diet RC Cola switched to 100% sucralose when that ingredient won approval in 1998.

One Diet Rite bottler applauded the changes. "The key word here is no aspartame," he said. "This will give us product with the same shelf life as sugar, and it eliminates concerns about health."

Merrill Lynch beverage analyst Emanuel Goldman said because Diet Rite is such a small player, Royal Crown can afford to take chances.

"There is no downside. For Diet Coke and Diet Pepsi, they have to think carefully before they reformulate. For Diet Rite, why not? If you're lucky,

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