Sprite shifts gears in quest for street cred

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Coca-Cola Co. wants to make Sprite more relevant by adding some flava.

The $2 billion lemon-lime segment leader will unveil a funky brand personality next month when Sprite bows creative from WPP Group's Ogilvy & Mather, New York. The new attitude will be personified in action figure Miles Thirst, a free-thinking, African-American poet/philosopher with a five-finger-high Afro and a hip-hop sensibility. The character keeps a Web journal at milesthirst.com and will play into an Internet component of the effort. Coca-Cola declined to comment.

The character will appear in a TV commercial breaking around the NBA All-Star game alongside rookie Lebron James, in a strategy somewhat reminiscent of the Michael Jordan/Mars Blackmon pairing made famous by Nike and Spike Lee.

Sprite is Coca-Cola's third-largest brand in the U.S. with a 55% market share, but has faced increased pressure from bottled water, diet beverages and energy drinks. PespiCo's Sierra Mist has also poured on the pressure. The base Sprite brand is down 8% in supermarket volume through November 2003, according to Beverage Digest. For the same period, Diet Sprite grew 1.6%. Introduced in May, Sprite Remix has a 0.5% share in supermarkets.

"Consumers are moving to diet [sodas] and water," said John Sicher, editor and publisher of Beverage Digest.

sprite zero

Coca-Cola also plans to rename its Diet Sprite brand Sprite Zero, appropriately descriptive for consumers who are now counting carbohydrates, calories and fat. Volume of diet soft drinks grew 3.8% last year, compared to just 0.8% growth for soft drinks overall.

John Carroll, Coca-Cola group brand director, was direct about Sprite's challenges in a recent speech at P&G's "Buzzpoint" influencer marketing summit in Cincinnati. "Over the past three years, we've lost a bit of relevance for the brand," he said. "It still has about 55% of the total category, but we're down a little bit. Sierra Mist has taken share. So have a variety of energy drinks, and water."

Mr. Carroll said Sprite is one of the youngest brands in Coca-Cola's portfolio, with about 54% of consumers under age 24. Sprite's consumer base is about 30% African-American and 15% Hispanic.

Coca-Cola used influencer marketing effectively in launching Sprite Remix last year. During the pre-launch phase in February 2003, Coca-Cola began seeding the brand through DJs. It sampled 3 million bottles at parties and events, got the brand to athletes and personalities, had a traveling "remix" station and hosted a party with P. Diddy at the MTV Music Video Awards. The company also made sure product was in music and fashion shops before advertising hit to give teens sampling opportunities before the launch.

Since launching Remix last April, the brand achieved 90% awareness with kids 12 to 18 and helped push Sprite volume up 8.6%, said Mr. Carroll. "We've shifted a lot of our budget into influencer marketing," said Mr. Carroll. "You'll see a lot more of that from us."

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