Skinny Pepsi Can Launch Is Heavy With Controversy

Diet Brand Rolls Out Slim Can to Appeal to Fashion-Forward but Some Find Thinner-Is-Better Idea Offensive

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It's hard to imagine that a brand the size of Diet Pepsi spent only $500,000 on measured media in the past three years combined, but that's exactly what happened.

With the focus on programs such as Refresh Project and brands such as Pepsi Max, Diet Pepsi was pushed to the sidelines. The brand has been included in trademark campaigns -- it was featured in media buys for Refresh Project throughout last year -- but it's been four years since Diet Pepsi received dedicated attention. According to Kantar, Diet Pepsi spent $63 million on measured media in 2006, less than half that in 2007 and just a half-million dollars since then.

Surprisingly, sales have been steady despite the piddling advertising outlay. According to Beverage Digest, though volume has declined, the decline is in line with what's happening across the diet cola and carbonated soft-drink categories. "It's not that we haven't invested in Diet Pepsi, but everyone related [Refresh Project] to Pepsi," said Ami Irazabal, marketing director at Pepsi. "We are going to actually start talking to our consumer again. ... We have our loyal followers that are a specific psychographic, and we want to make sure we talk to them on a one-to-one level."

To that end, the brand is introducing a new package, the Skinny Can, and building a major marketing program around it, slated to run throughout 2011. The can will become part of Diet Pepsi's permanent lineup. (Pepsi's Skinny Can is a full 12 oz. serving. Competitor Coca-Cola has experimented with slimmer and shorter cans that are not a full 12 oz. in some markets.)

"The challenge is making sure that packaging is a legitimate way to do marketing," Ms. Irazabal said. "Sometimes people think innovation is about changing what's inside. But sometimes I think it's about celebrating what's inside in a different way."

Ads promote the can but also convey the idea of "getting the skinny" or the inside scoop on the latest in culture, fashion, style and design. The can will be available nationwide in March and will be touted with an array of media, including print, out-of-home, TV and digital buys. Sofia Vergara of "Modern Family" is featured in early print and out-of-home executions and is being considered, along with several other personalities, for TV ads, Ms. Irazabal said. She declined to comment on marketing spend for the effort, though she called it "substantial." TBWA/Chiat/Day, Los Angeles, is working on the campaign.

A slew of partnerships and retail promotions are also a part of the effort. A promotion that gives consumers $5 off a purchase at Target when they buy a four-pack of Skinny Cans and a People magazine is launching late this month. And Diet Pepsi was an official sponsor of New York Fashion Week, where the can was presented as a fashion item and handed out to the trendsetting crew that frequents runway shows.

To help conceive the effort, it formed a "Pop Culture Council," including personalities like Simon Doonan, creative ambassador for Barney's, and convened at Eventi Hotel in Manhattan in December. Because of contractual obligations, Diet Pepsi declined to name all those in attendance, but said the group included well-known designers and stylists. Ms. Irazabal said that the group was presented with various ideas and advertising concepts and told to "pull them apart and rebuild them."

"They were saying you need to stop thinking as a staple product and think as we think in the fashion and design industries," Ms. Irazabal said. "That's not our expertise, so we need to be smart enough and humble enough to call those that know better than us."

The effort is not without controversy. The National Eating Disorders Association put out a press release saying it "takes offense" to the idea. "Pepsi should be ashamed for declaring that skinny is to be celebrated," said Lynn Grefe, president-CEO of NEDA. Various blogs and news outlets have also decried the Skinny Can and a company press release that called the can "slim" and "attractive."

Ms. Irazabal says she anticipated some would respond negatively to the Skinny Can, adding that it's a topic her team addressed with the Pop Culture Council. The fashion industry, after all, is no stranger to controversies related to body shape. Because of those discussions, Ms. Irazabal says she's felt confident in responding to criticisms. "It's the new shape of a product. We're not talking about the form or shape of a woman," she said. "And it's also the marketing platform, getting the skinny, the inside scoop, on fashion, style and design."

Eric Gustavsen, founding partner at creative firm Graj & Gustavsen who has no connection to the project, said he expects controversy will blow over quickly. "It's more of a fun idea than it is derogatory to a group," he said, adding he expects consumers will gravitate toward the new can because it's novel. "This particular idea is simple enough and understandable enough that it may very well have mass appeal. It's cool and different. That doesn't mean it's going to redefine what a soda can shape is, but there's nothing wrong with breaking away and experimenting."

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