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This summer could be high noon for a New Age showdown between Quaker Oats Co.'s Snapple and Coca-Cola Co.'s Fruitopia.

"These two players will define alternative beverages this summer, and it's interesting because they have totally different approaches," said Tom Pirko, president of New York consultancy Bevmark.

After facing off for a year in just the fruit drink and lemonade segments of the New Age category, the two brands opened a third front in their rivalry when Fruitopia added four fruit teas to its lineup last month. In its first year, Coca-Cola's upstart brand brought in total sales of $20.4 million for the 52 weeks ending March 26, according to Information Resources Inc.

With the competition spilling over into the ready-to-drink tea segment, where Snapple sales totaled $130.5 million, Fruitopia looks like it's just itching for a fight.

Although companies like PepsiCo have a strong New Age presence with Lipton and Ocean Spray, Snapple and Fruitopia are the only two high-power brands with umbrellas that extend over three New Age segments. Excluding a penchant for wacky flavors, that's where the comparison ends.

Note the major differences: While sales of Snapple's 44 offerings have been hobbled by the complex distribution system it shares with Gatorade, Fruitopia's 14 products are hitching a ride on Coca-Cola's fearsome delivery network. After little more than a year on the market, Fruitopia is also trying to establish the consumer connection Snapple has forged, hoping its retro peace-and-love ad theme-recently removed from New York agency Chiat/Day's care to Leo Burnett Co., Chicago-will strike a more memorable chord than Wendy the Snapple Lady, created by Kirshenbaum/Bond/Partners, New York.

Beverage marketers put their best foot forward in the thirst-inducing summer.

"Companies plan the rest of the year around the summertime," said John Clevenger, senior consultant at Meridian Consulting Group, Westport, Conn. "These products have to be put on the shelves as fast as customers can drink them."

Which is why all analysts agree that effective distribution is essential. Snapple's trip to the shelves has been slowed considerably by a combination direct store delivery/warehouse distribution system, contributing to a 14% drop in Snapple's supermarket volume in February vs. January.

"The Quaker-Snapple honeymoon was a little rocky at first," noted Jesse Meyers, editor of Beverage Digest, Greenwich, Conn. "`But the surprises are over, and they seem to be settling down."

However, Snapple's real strength lies in alternative channels like convenience stores and delis that aren't usually counted with sales figures. The Coca-Cola network is also not always the best thing for a brand just starting out, Mr. Clevenger suggested. "Big companies have difficulty focusing their systems on small brands when it has something like Diet Coke to worry about, too," he said.

Coca-Cola probably did its fair share of worrying over which agency to assign Fruitopia. After months of speculation that it would go to one of the smaller shops in Chief Marketing Officer Sergio Zyman's stable, established giant Burnett got the job. No timetable on new creative has been determined, a Coca-Cola spokeswoman said.

Many industry observers said the agency's global reach would be a perfect match with Coca-Cola's aggressive expansion plans for Fruitopia, which got an estimated $30 million in marketing support last year. The drink, sold in seven countries, is about to enter Latin America.

Snapple's global range is limited to a few countries, a Snapple spokeswoman said.

With six spots featuring Wendy the Snapple Lady in rotation, Snapple has Kirshenbaum working on similar commercials for new flavors unveiled last month-Bali Blast, Cherry Lemonade and Ralph's Cantaloupe Cocktail. Ad spending was estimated at $50 million last year, and Quaker wouldn't specify how much that will increase in 1995.

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