Sweet Nothing—the Triumph Of Diet Soda

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For anyone raised in the eighties and nineties, a soda landscape without Diet Coke seems incomplete, if not actually bizarre. But the current king of diet sodas did not enter the market until 1982, when, after a great deal of fanfare, the Coca Cola Company introduced Diet Coke. Laboratory workers referred to their highly researched newcomer as “Project Harvard.”

An article from the Times of Columbus, Georgia (Royal Crown’s hometown, but very close to the seat of the Coca-Cola empire in Atlanta), suggests Coke’s enthusiasm. The company spokesman, Joe Bowers, said: “‘Clearly we have great confidence in it and great expectations for it. We think it will be the most exciting and significant new soft drink introduction of the decade.’

“Bowers pointed out the low calorie segment of the soft drink market is growing ‘more than three times as fast as the overall market and we believe the introduction of diet Coke will ensure our leadership in it… .’

“He added, ‘Actually we feel diet Coke will speed that segment’s growth because it will attract regular soft drink consumers to its real cola taste.’”

Bowers’s final statement was anything but an afterthought. As at every step in the development of Diet Coke, which, incidentally, was and still is marketed with a lowercase d on the label to indicate “that its dietary qualities were secondary to its Coke-ness,” the concept of the product was carefully calculated by the company. Coca-Cola aimed to capture a male market and to rebrand Tab as a soft drink for women; the advertising of both products would reflect this. But Coca-Cola had also stumbled upon something important with Diet Coke: The Coke name had magic enough to overcome the difficulties of marketing a “diet” drink. “Many of the new consumers were attracted simply because of the magical brand name— Coke,” writes Pendergrast. “In labeled taste-tests, consumers preferred Tab to Pepsi by a slim margin, but when [Tab was dispensed] from a can marked ‘Diet Coke,’ the name alone swung the results twelve more points in Coca-Cola’s favor. In essence, the consumers were tasting the world’s best-known trademark, with goodwill built over a ninety-six-year history.”

Diet Coke did not come without its own problems, how-ever. Its sales seemed to be directly eating into those of regular Coke products and Tab. Nevertheless, one beverage analyst wrote that with its new line, Coca-Cola was “saying that the future is clearly in diet brands.” In the early eighties, when soft-drink sales were growing at an all-time low of 2.5 percent a year, diet soft-drink sales were growing at 8 percent.

Today’s diet soda marketers have almost completely forsaken the language of health and dieting.

In the struggle that followed, Diet Coke surpassed Pepsi as the world’s second-best-selling soft drink, diet and regular. Meanwhile, less became more in the industry during the eighties. At the same time Coca-Cola introduced Diet Coke, Pepsi came out with Pepsi Free, a diet soda with no caffeine. The quest to contain less and less sometimes verged on the absurd. In 1985’s Back to the Future , when Michael J. Fox’s character, having traveled back in time 30 years, attempts to order a Pepsi Free, he is rudely awakened: “You want a Pepsi, pal, you’re gonna pay for it.” (Tab, for its part, was never really promoted after the saccharin scare until very recently, although it always has been produced, its pink cans patiently sought by connoisseurs.)

Today, almost 25 years after Diet Coke’s debut and half a century after Hyman Kirsch’s No-Cal, the industry giants are largely the same as in the 1980s. Coca-Cola and Pepsi have whittled away Diet Rite’s market share, and most of the other major diet sodas on the market today are owned by one of the two big soda companies or by Cadbury Schweppes, which manufactures Dr Pepper and 7UP.

What is perhaps significant, however, is how Coca-Cola, which once hesitated to put its name on a single diet soda, now spreads it across practically a dozen. There is Diet Coke, C2 (which contains about half the calories of regular Coca-Cola), Diet Caffeine Free Coke, Coca-Cola Zero, Diet Cherry Coke, Diet Black Cherry Vanilla Coke, Diet Coke with Lime, and Diet Coke with Splenda (in addition to its international product, Coke Light). Coke also has introduced diet versions of a number of its popular subsidiary sodas, including Diet Barq’s root beer. Pepsi has stratified its diet-soda industry almost as much as Coca-Cola, having introduced Diet Pepsi Vanilla, Wild Cherry Diet Pepsi, Diet Pepsi with Lime, Diet Pepsi Twist (lemon-flavored), and Pepsi ONE, along with diet versions of its subsidiary sodas, such as Diet Mountain Dew.

The new millennium brought with it two developments in the diet soda world, one predictable, the other maybe less so. Soda companies have slowly been turning away from aspartame in favor of newer sweeteners—most recently, sucralose, which goes by the more consumer-friendly name Splenda. Sucralose dates from 1976, when a researcher misunderstood the word test for taste during an experiment. It took 18 years for the sweetener to gain FDA approval, and after its introduction in 1999, it was initially marketed on diabetic Web sites before being pitched to a wider audience with the slogan “Made from sugar, so it tastes like sugar.” In 2000 Diet Rite became the first major soft drink to replace aspartame with sucralose, pre-empting Pepsi and Coke by several years and boosting its sales by 35 percent in 2004.