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Coke takes ‘natural’ mid-calorie carbonate plunge in Pepsi NEXT wake with stevia-based trials

By Ben Bouckley , 15-May-2012
Last updated on 15-May-2012 at 12:31 GMT

1975: 'There's a fresh new taste in soft drinks' with mid-calorie Pepsi Light, but consumers weren't convinced. What's different today?
1975: 'There's a fresh new taste in soft drinks' with mid-calorie Pepsi Light, but consumers weren't convinced. What's different today?

The Coca-Cola Company is poised to test its own mid-calorie sodas in the US using Sprite and Fanta using natural sweeteners including Cargill's stevia brand, hot on the heels of PepsiCo’s mid-calorie cola launch Pepsi NEXT.

But aside from Coke’s non-cola CSD choice, this summer's planned test is also intriguing in comparison with Pepsi NEXT due to Coca-Cola’s use of a natural sweetening system that includes steviol glycloside Rebiana.

According to the Associated Press (AP) Coke will test Sprite and Fanta ‘Select’ products this summer with only half the calories (70) of regular drinks: 140 per 12oz (354ml) can.

Test markets include Atlanta, Detroit, Louisville (Kentucky) and Memphis (Tennessee), although the firm is not planning a nationwide roll-out as yet, the AP said.

Natural flavouring system

Coke will use a different sweetening system to Pepsi NEXT (high-fructose corn syrup, sucralose, Ace-K and aspartame) by blending sugar, Cargill stevia brand Truvia and erythritol.

Coca-Cola spokesman Scott Williamson told the AP that the mid-calorie drinks tests formed part of the multinational’s ongoing development work.

"We're always looking at testing different formulations to see what, if any, appeal they might have,” he said.

Earlier this month, Euromonitor beverages analyst Jonas Feliciano suggested that Pepsi NEXT was simply “rehashing a failed concept” and could already be a product “in search of a market”.

He questioned whether mid-calorie sodas generally had prospects – targeted at calorie watchers who disliked diet drinks – and suggested that PepsiCo’s marketing strategy for NEXT was flawed.

Graveyard strewn with corpses…

The mid-calorie soda grayeyard is strewn with corpses: Pepsi has lemon cola Light (1975) – see cheesy yet fun embedded video below – and XL (1993) to its name, and Euromonitor analyst Jonas Feliciano said that Coca-Cola’s C2 benefits were not distinctive enough to draw consumers.

The analyst noted that Coke’s C2 (2004- and Pepsi’s Edge (2004-2005) hybrid colas was rejected by men aged 20-40 who desired full flavour with no calories or carbohydrates, not half.

Joan Schneider and Julie Hall (in the Harvard Business Review) suggested that C2 cannabalised Coke and Diet Coke sales, due to sluggish (2%) case volume growth for the three brands in 2004.

“Despite identifying a market, developing a product specific to that market, and providing ample support to promote the product, the benefit of only consuming half the calories did not outweigh the negatives in loss of flavour for their consumers,” Feliciano added.

And although PepsiCo believes NEXT will be different and is stressing its taste credentials, the analyst also questioned whether consumers wanted a “close but not quite” mid-calorie flavour.

Pepsi Max and Coca-Cola Zero (launched a year after C2 in 2005) had already tapped male ‘health and wellness’ concerns more recently with zero calorie options, he added. 

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