Coke finally scores another winner

Coke Zero, apparently, is your father's diet drink. Women may be the core customers for no-cal drinks, but Coke Zero also is bringing in men — from college boys to soccer dads — with black packaging, a different sweetener and irreverent marketing that appeals to men.

Zero is Coca-Cola's ko first new product hit after a long list of attempts — from lime to vanilla flavors — that started strong and fizzled fast.

Zero, out two years, is still growing. Sales volume is up 34% in North America year-to-date vs. the same period in 2006.

Third-quarter results out this month show Zero with a nearly 1.3% share in carbonated beverages in North America — enough in the $90 billion beverage business to make a bottler bubble over. The company credits double-digit growth by Zero with driving a 4% worldwide volume jump in carbonated beverages — and Zero is sold so far in only 50 of the 200 countries where Coke does business.

Men are about 45% of Diet Coke drinkers but about 55% of Coke Zero buyers. It has a stronger, more Coke Classic-like flavor and seems to be holding onto male customers who've become more calorie-conscious with age but still want more flavor than most diet colas.

"This product tastes like Coke," says Caren Pasquale Seckler, Coke's group director of diet cola brands in North America. "There's a broad group of young adult males who are looking for full flavor … and, oh, by the way, it has zero calories."

Seckler won't say exactly how the taste/calorie combination is achieved but notes the sweetener is a mix of aspartame and acesulfame potassium (known as Ace-K), which gives Zero a more sugarlike taste than aspartame alone.

"It's got a fairly sophisticated flavor system and complex ingredients to help replicate the taste of regular Coca-Cola," says beverage expert John Sicher, editor of industry tracker Beverage Digest. "There are many people who like the taste of Coke Classic but who did not transition to Diet Coke when they got older. Coke Zero is keeping them in the Coca-Cola franchise."

In the past year, since Seckler took over Zero's marketing, ads have been all about Classic-like taste. "Everything we're doing now is about communicating that message," she says.

Even a North American packaging change was based on flavor: A year ago, black cans and labels replaced white because of sales success for Zero with black packaging in Australia and the United Kingdom. "We learned from other countries that the dark color connoted a stronger, bolder flavor," she says.

The message wasn't always so focused. When Coke Zero launched, ads cast it as a "contemporary" offshoot of Classic with a message to "chill."

The first ad, by Miami agency Crispin Porter + Bogusky, updated Coke's famous 1971 "Hilltop" ad in which hundreds of diverse people hold hands on a mountain and sing about buying the world a Coke. The Coke Zero version, "Chilltop," was set on a Philadelphia roof where a white rapper led others in song. Nobody got it.

"When we first launched the brand, we probably didn't talk about the taste as much as we should have," Seckler says.

Today's TV ads also were created by Crispin, a hot Miami ad shop that helped revive Burger King for young male burger eaters with its weird King. Its new Coke Zero ads — shot to look like homemade videos — first were shown on the Zero website. Their popularity there led to a decision also to air them as TV ads.

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