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Sweet Nothing—the Triumph Of Diet Soda
It came out of a Brooklyn hospital and in very few years changed not only what Americans drink but how they see themselves.
June/July 2006 | Volume 57, Issue 3
Diet Rite had not, as this article might have suggested, simply materialized on store shelves. The new cola had been the subject of vigorous research and marketing efforts, and although Diet Rite made its debut in Chicago, Royal Crown had begun a marketing test in Greenville, South Carolina, to find out how well the product would fare on a national level. The test was a resounding success. One person involved noted that “in Greenville, S.C., where we had been running a poor third behind Coke and Pepsi, we actually had grocery store managers getting into their cars and chasing down RC trucks to get Diet-Rite on their shelves.”
The company rolled out Diet Rite nationally in 1962, and it has been a mainstay of the industry ever since. Its importance in the soda world, and the world of American culture at large, cannot be overestimated. “So stunning was Diet-Rite Cola’s impact on the soft drink market in the early 1960s,” one writer notes, “that its acceptance could be compared to the beginnings of mighty Coca-Cola itself some 75 years earlier. Diet-Rite, in fact, revealed the high degree of diet consciousness in America, leading to an entire industry of diet foods and drinks, which has flourished in the 30 years since.”
In many ways Diet Rite owed its success not to what was different and new about it but rather to what was the same as other soft drinks. It tasted more or less like the original, nondiet version, thanks to the cyclamates that sweetened it. Moreover, Diet Rite looked like other sodas—it came in glass bottles that could be returned and exchanged—and the price was right, a nickel. Just a year and a half after its introduction, Diet Rite was the country’s fourth-best-selling cola, coming in after only Coke, Pepsi, and Royal Crown’s regular lines.
Diet rite’s advertising, too, was a change from No-Cal’s early campaign, and it helped set the stage for the future direction of the industry. “Of course, Diet-Rite comes on the scene when public interest in calorie-counting is booming,” states a 1962 ad, “[and] Diet-Rite is riding the boom… . But it’s the delicious flavor, says Diet-Rite, rather than the slenderizing properties, that makes the biggest hit with consumers. The bottler states that cola drinkers of all ages from kids to grownups make Diet-Rite a family favorite because it tastes good.” Diet Rite was already aware that diet soda’s appeal was not limited to those watching their weight.
In the early 1960s, alarmed by Diet-Rite’s increasing mar-ket share, Coca-Cola, long the largest soft-drink manufacturer in the United States, began its own diet-soda project. Clearly the time was ripe for Coca-Cola to enter the field; in 1962 The New York Times reported that “some 50,000,000 cases of low-calorie soft drinks were sold … accounting for a total outlay of $18,000,000.”
The effort became the source of fierce internal company debates. Paul Austin, the tenth president of Coca-Cola, a Harvardtrained lawyer and Olympic rower, set his researchers loose on a quest he named Project Alpha, to develop a product that would taste exactly like Coca-Cola but would avoid a diet-soda aftertaste. But for all the effort that went into the for-mulation of Coca-Cola’s new diet soft drink, more went into its naming and branding strategy. Only one executive in the company seems to have argued that the new product should be called Diet Coke; instead, most agreed that it should set itself apart from the Coca-Cola brand. After endless days of screening new names like Abzu, Zap, and Zuff, gener-ated by weary advertising executives and the Coca-Cola mainframe computer, the company settled on Tab, and chose the soon-to-be-famous slogan, “How can just one calorie taste so good?”
There was, naturally, a great deal of media excitement about Coca-Cola’s first attempt at a diet soft drink, even if the company had shied away from putting its name on the new “dietetic soda.” An article in the The New York Time s announcing the debut of Tab and competing diet drinks from Pepsi noted that the two companies were tapping into a market that had been created by “regional bottlers” and which before long they would take over almost completely. Tab appears to have been the first diet cola to advertise on television, and following Royal Crown’s lead, its ads emphasized taste as much as they did weight. Tab was also as much about a “lifestyle” of enjoyment and pleasure as it was about being thin, a message that Coca-Cola would eventually transplant to its nondiet soda divisions.
Pepsi’s contender was Patio Diet Cola. Patio was aimed squarely at women. Wrote one advertising-industry observer: “Pepsi-Cola Company is testing its new drink, Patio Diet Cola, in Greenville, S.C. [Diet Rite’s old proving ground], and seems to be beaming its campaign mainly at the feminine market. An actress named Debbie Drake has been signed to appear in a series of ads in which she will explain how women can maintain their figures through proper diet and exercise.”
While it is true that Patio Diet Cola was aimed primarily at women, it also fired one of the first shots in a war that would flare for decades: “All of the leading diet colas are practically alike,” Pepsi declared. “They look alike. They’re all sugar-free. And they all have but one tiny calorie to the glass. The only real difference is taste!” Clearly Pepsi too was ready to move Patio Diet Cola into a larger market.