Brand Strategy Beverage Social Media

Pepsi Zero Sugar trolls Coke as the cola wars get frosty


By Kenneth Hein, US Editor

August 18, 2021 | 4 min read

With zero-sugar carbonated soft drinks sales surging, Coca-Cola boldly asked the question: ‘Is Coke Zero Sugar the best Coke ever?’ Dialing up a blitz from the challenger brand marketing playbook, PepsiCo is bashing the category leader as it readies a spate of Pepsi Zero Sugar ads.

Pepsi Zero Sugar

Pepsi says it’s time to break up with Coke Zero Sugar

Pepsi isn’t impressed with Coke Zero Sugar’s new taste. Claiming that social media audiences are dissatisfied with what Coca-Cola has called ‘the best Coke ever’ as well, Pepsi is offering a refund to disappointed consumers.

Beginning today, Pepsi will reimburse consumers $2.50 when they buy a 20 oz bottle of Pepsi Zero Sugar. Consumers will be asked to text proof of purchase and post a photo of themselves with their new drink of choice with the hashtag ’#MyCokeBreakUp’. Pepsi Zero Sugar is also seeding a coupon for 12 packs of Pepsi Zero Sugar across social.

Pepsi, the official sponsor of the National Football League, promises that the majority of Pepsi’s NFL media activation this season will be dedicated to its zero-sugar product. All told, there are going to be more than a dozen new TV spots promoting Pepsi Zero Sugar.

The attack comes after Coke launched a massive campaign for its zero-sugar product this month to celebrate the reformulation of one of its best-selling products. For the first half of the year, Coke Zero Sugar dollar sales grew 13%, making it the seventh best-selling soda in the US. It currently owns 3.5% of the category. Pepsi’s zero-sugar version grew 22% from a much smaller base. It currently owns only 0.8% of the segment.

“We’re seeing the cola wars shift to the zero-sugar platform,” says Duane Stanford, editor of Beverage Digest. “Pepsi wants to gain share. They see they can. They’ve been having success. It’s a sensible play. They are going to push the agenda to get more consumer consideration.”

The cola giants have been trying to gain traction in the zero-sugar segment for years. Pepsi Max, which launched in 1993, became Pepsi Zero Sugar in 2015. Coke Zero, which launched in 2005, became Coca-Cola Zero Sugar in 2017. “Younger consumers are gravitating to beverages that don’t contain sugar. They love it because there are fewer calories and no aftertaste,” says Stanford.

Pepsi is hoping history repeats itself in this growing category. After all, its reimbursement stunt echoes ’The Pepsi Challenge’ of the mid-seventies when it challenged consumers to a head-to-head taste test. Borrowing from another historic moment in marketing history, Pepsi is likening the failure of Coke Zero Sugar’s new taste to that of New Coke – the flop from 1985.

“We believe that Pepsi Zero Sugar is the perfect match for zero cola drinkers who are unwilling to compromise on taste,” says Todd Kaplan, vice-president of marketing, Pepsi. “For those who are willing to give us a shot, their Pepsi Zero Sugar will be on us – as we’re confident they’ll stick with us for life ... our hearts ache for those whose zero sugar cola of choice seems to have a bit of a commitment problem.”

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