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SOMERS, N.Y.-Puzzled by the fact that diet drinks weren't selling outside North America, Mark Blecher set out on a mission: to find out why.

Now almost three years later, the director of marketing for PepsiCo International not only knows the answer but has a product, Pepsi Max, that is making diet soft drink history.

Mr. Blecher, 30, is busily orchestrating a country by country rollout for Pepsi Max, the first soft drink created specifically for markets outside Pepsi's home country. With the product already up and running in a dozen countries, he plans to hit at least eight more by yearend.

Pepsi Max was introduced in the U.K. and racked up a 4% share of the cola market as of April, a year after it went into test market and seven months after its national introduction. That boosted total Pepsi share of the cola market in supermarkets to 22.3%, up from 17.2% a year earlier, and in convenience-type stores to 22.4% from 18.3% a year earlier.

Mr. Blecher's first step, research in the U.K., Germany and Australia, uncovered the fact that people wanted a soft drink with less sugar but with the taste of regular cola. Additionally, men didn't want anyone to know they drank what were considered wimpy, feminine diet products.

Mr. Blecher's solution was a diet cola with a macho image. While Pepsi Max's name, packaging and marketing shouts "regular" cola, it has no sugar.

Everything about the product is bold, from its name to the promotional Pepsi Max roller coaster ride opening this year at a U.K. amusement park.

"It's like Marlboro where the imagery is masculine, [yet] you're not losing female customers," says Mr. Blecher, who opted for dark red and blue colors on packaging, unlike the white/light appearance of most diet colas.

In choosing a name as macho as the packaging, Mr. Blecher also sought one that would easily translate into many languages. Pepsi Max won out over many others, including Pepsi One (rejected because its one calorie emphasis was too diet-oriented), Pepsi Bold, Pepsi Plus and Pepsi 2000.

"Max or maximum is understandable in any language," says Mr. Blecher.

Pepsi Max's advertising positions the brand as a lifestyle beverage for hip, active young people aged 16-29. In a :30 "Done That", created by BBDO, New York, a waterfall stuntman plunges over a 55-foot waterfall in Hilo, Hawaii, while another stuntman is seen taking a 1,200-foot cliff jump into the Grand Canyon. Four cool onlookers are blase about their experiences, but when they try Pepsi Max it "blows them away."

With the program fully developed, Mr. Blecher selected the U.K. for the introduction because the early research indicated the market would welcome such a product.

Intensive test marketing in Scotland and the Midlands region included heavy media and sampling to as much as 10% of an area's population. Pepsi found unconventional but appropriate male-dominated places to sample such as bowling alleys, concerts and soccer games.

The test proved so successful-more than 90% of Pepsi Max consumers in the first four weeks bought again and 45% of consumers were still buying two months later-that the $9 million national rollout was moved from January '94 to September '93.

That level of success is being seen in country after country. "We had three objectives," Mr. Blecher says, "to appeal to males, to gain share from regular cola drinkers not just diet cola drinkers and to take share from Coke. We achieved all three."

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