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.

In the Borat-style ads, two supposed "brand managers" for Coca-Cola Classic approach real-life lawyers and tell the incredulous attorneys that they want their help to sue Coke Zero for "taste infringement."

Coke Zero has gotten a healthy ad budget — $75 million in 2006 — and been given exposure in some of the company's big sponsorship deals. Zero ads ran in early-season episodes of American Idol last winter, and branded cups appeared on the judges' table for two weeks in May as the contest neared a winner. Coca-Cola has been an American Idol sponsor since the first season, and the high-profile product placement has been reserved mostly for the flagship Coke Classic.

Trying to sell a diet drink to men, however, also has pushed marketers to be innovative. Last week, for instance, the Coke Zero website introduced a Fantasy Football section. Visitors can design a championship ring, create a touchdown dance and upload their image to the grandstand of fans. They also can send "smack talk" taunts to fellow fantasy players.

Ads also ran in college basketball games and the NCAA tournament. Online promotion for the tournament included an interactive "Bracket-O-Matic" that automatically filled in tournament brackets. Players could choose such strategies as Dynasty vs. Cinderella or State vs. Private and Bracket-O-Matic would make the choices.

To bring Zero this far in the cola playoffs, Coca-Cola had to get past a slump in growth and let the brand marketers tweak the marketing message until it scored with guys.

"Coke showed they can take a product that maybe got a little lost at the beginning and turn it around," says John Faucher, JPMorgan beverage analyst. "They showed they are willing to stick with it."

NEW & NOTABLE

Havin' a swine time. Flying pigs have taken off with marketers.

• To promote a rewards-focused money market account, Capital One cof early next month will unveil a Skybus Airlines jet adorned with big pink pigs, as well as the Capital One name. It will fly Skybus routes for six months.

Why the pork? "This is to highlight that a company is rewarding consumers for saving (rather than spending) … an event that until now was thought would only happen when pigs fly," spokeswoman Pam Girardo said in an e-mail.

• The Philadelphia Inquirer in May took a porcine approach to promoting subscriptions by projecting images of flying pigs across the outside of its headquarters.

• And Frito-Lay has made a pig the mascot for its new Flat Earth chips, made with fruit and veggies. "The Flat Earth Flying Pig is a fitting symbol for a snack that was once thought impossible," Frito proclaimed in its press release.

It's a tough job, but somebody's got to do it. Condom maker Durex is looking for volunteers to test its wares. It has launched website DurexCondomTester.com, to recruit "sexual intercourse enthusiasts" to fill out an online application explaining why he or she should be picked as one of 1,000 product testers. "It's not a bad job to apply for," says Durex brand manager Steve Mare. "Testers need to be at least 18 years of age, but there is no upward age limit. Active grandparents are encouraged to apply."

In the first week, the company had received more than 8,000 applications. The contest closes Sunday at midnight.

The volunteers selected will be sent Durex condoms, lubricants and other products and asked to record their feedback on a separate website. There's no paycheck, but one lucky tester picked randomly will get a $1,000 bonus.

Drinking green is about more than tea. Guru Energy Drink is hyping its all-natural, organic sports drinks, juices and teas on the streets of its home city, New York, the "green" way: via zero-emission vehicles.

Three electric minitrucks provided by Zap, a maker of high-performance electric vehicles, have been cruising New York City for the past several months offering samples of Guru teas and juices.

"This is the ultimate in green marketing," Zap CEO Steve Schneider says.

For thirsty New Yorkers, we say stock up on those free samples while you can. Buying these "green" drinks will cost you a lot of green: a 16-ounce can is $3.49.

Still pitchin'. Yankees' former manager Joe Torre may have thumbed his nose at a new contract with the Bronx Bombers, but J.H. Cohn still wants him in its bullpen. The accounting and consulting group took out an ad in The New York Times last week saying they still support Gentleman Joe as their company pitchman, even if the only pinstripes he'll be in now is a suit.

"We are proud that he is our spokesperson and friend, and we continue to support him 100%" read the ad, which had a 7-by-5.5-inch photo of the ex-skipper.

By Bruce Horovitz and Laura Petrecca

ASK THE AD TEAM

Q: In recent ads for the Taco Bell Grilled Chicken Taquito, the red-haired guy running in a marathon looks familiar. Who is he?

A: Stand-up comedian Gareth Reynolds, 27, is the marathon runner who loads up on a Chicken Taquito and comes from behind to catch the leaders in the race. The message is that the taquito is good food for folks on the go. Reynolds, from Brown Deer, Wis., is a TV commercial novice who gained notice this year thanks to his role on NBC's The Real Wedding Crashers. In online advertising, however, he was half of a team hired by Unilever to promote Axe body spray. Unilever had Gareth and friend Evan Mann record their feats and failures in wooing women at www.evanandgareth.com.

Ad Team Disclaimer: Professional comedian on closed course. Since the fall marathon season is in high gear — Washington, D.C.'s Marine Corps Marathon was Sunday — we should warn that downing taquitos on a 26.2-mile run could be no laughing matter.

Q:Is that Yvonne Strahovski from the new NBC show Chuck playing "Eve" in the silly costume party ad for Captain Morgan rum?

A: Nope. It's model Shaundra Hyre, 28, in the Captain Morgan ad, though they look a lot alike — particularly the long, blond hairstyle. Hyre, currently a redhead, plays "Eve" in the ad, in which four young men show they "have a little Captain in them." They scope out hotties at a Halloween party before deciding on costumes. When they then show up at the party in costumes that just happen to match up with the women's outfits, chatting them up is a breeze. Eve, for example, marvels at the coincidence when "Adam" wears a matching fig leaf. Hyre, based in New York, also has recently been in TV ads for Pantene and Macy's.

Meanwhile, Strahovski, 24, hasn't been here long. She landed the role of Sarah Walker in Chuck right after moving to Los Angeles from Australia.

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