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Royal Crown Cola Co. is so serious about rebuilding the RC cola and Diet Rite brands, it's funny.

The company is using its largest ad budget in years-$15 million-for separate campaigns that portray Royal Crown brands as the choice of independent thinkers. The commercials do so with aggressive, humorous shots at industry giants Coca-Cola Co. and Pepsi-Cola Co.

"We're making the point about choice in a very dramatic fashion," said John Carson, Royal Crown's president-ceo of 10 months.

One of two 30-second TV spots for RC cola shows Coca-Cola and Pepsi-Cola employees literally reeling in consumers from commercial fishing boats. The independent thinkers on the dock get RC cola from nearby vending machines.

In a single Diet Rite TV spot with the theme "We got Diet Rite," Diet Coke and Diet Pepsi vending machines line up in front of a Diet Rite machine that offers a variety of flavors and wind up buying Diet Rite.

RC cola and Diet Rite are also being supported by radio advertising and promotions. RC, for example, will be cross-promoted with one of the great U.S. symbols of independence, Harley-Davidson motorcycles.

The ad spending this year is at least five times last year's estimated $2 million to $3 million, and the highest since the early 1980s. Advertising, however, is just one aspect of an eight-point, $68 million plan Mr. Carson developed to rejuvenate Royal Crown sales.

Under the plan, the company is also investing $20 million to put 10,000 new RC cola and Diet Rite vending machines into the marketplace, expand international distribution and roll out new packaging for RC and Diet Rite.

"Job one is to get the business growing again," Mr. Carson said. His goal is for Royal Crown sales to grow at about 6% annually, double the growth rate of the soft-drink industry. Royal Crown's sales have been declining 2% to 3% annually in recent years.

Royal Crown's share of the $49.1 billion carbonated soft-drink market slipped 0.1 point in 1993 to 2%, according to Beverage Digest. Coca-Cola and Pepsi-Cola command shares of 41.1% and 32.2%, respectively.

Mr. Carson has already built a new marketing team at Royal Crown, hiring former Coca-Cola Group Brand Director Donald Lenehan as senior VP-marketing and tapping GSD&M, Austin, Texas, to create Royal Crown's ads.

Last month, he hired two promotion agencies. BSB/Dryden & Petisi, Westport, Conn., is handling RC cola and Diet Rite, and JPM, Chicago, has Royal Crown's smaller brands, Kick and Nehi. The two agencies will also develop promotions with media outlets including MTV: Music Television and Fox Broadcasting Co.

Kick and Nehi will also get marketing support this year.

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