Feb 8, 2012

Coke Zero: Real Taste; Zero Sugar

Bodypaint by Eva Rinaldi

“Real taste zero sugar” is the slogan printed on the bottle of Coca-Cola Zero, a Classic-like taste cola with zero-calorie newly launched in mainland China. With black packaging, the visual identity of Coke Zero retains the iconic visual elements of the Coca-Cola brand but presented in a simpler, bolder and more modern way, a personality more appealing to its target audience of young men.

The new product Coke Zero was first sold in convenience stores in Guangzhou in early January 2008, and now it is available in all retail outlets in Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Dongguan, and Zhuhai, four major cities across Guangdong province. “Coca-Cola Zero is a new member of our product portfolio of more than 50 beverages launched in China. It is not only the company’s first important new product launch in 2008, but also the most successful product innovation in the past few years. With special features of Coke Classic-like taste and zero sugar, Coke Zero is certainly set to create a new wave in the beverage market of China, especially in the sugar-free sector.

By the end of March, Coke Zero has entered into the retail channels of more Metropolitan areas such as Shanghai and Beijing, with small-scale tentative promotional activities along the way. One thing can be sure is that as temperature is getting higher, so is the intensity of the marketing campaign of Coke Zero across China. The only message that Coca-Cola has been trying to communicate in the marketing campaign is quite simple: great original Coke flavor zero sugar, which features in the advertising and on the packaging.

The message would make Coke Zero more appealing to young male consumers¡ªthe target audience of the product and major drinkers of carbonated beverages, who have become more calorie-conscious with age but still want more flavor than most diet colas.

Coke Zero isn’t the first sugar-free cola launched in mainland China in Coke family. Diet Coke has been available in the grocery stores across China for nearly a decade. With features more attractive to young women who care about their body lines and calorie-conscious mature adults, Diet Coke is the third best selling soft drink brand in the world, but in China it is not even close to where it is in the global market, mainly due to the relatively low recognition of the healthy image of sugar-free concept among Chinese consumers compared to consumers in the developed countries, and lack of effective marketing of Diet Coke.

Therefore after almost ten years Diet Coke hasn’t been able to make a breakthrough among young cola drinkers, and remained a marginal player in Chinese soft drink market. Having said that, the awareness of sugar-free and low-calorie alternative has been growing rapidly among Chinese consumers in the past decade, which prepared the stage for the big-time launch of Coke Zero today in China.

Coca-Cola Zero made its nation wide debut in the U.S. in June 2005, and it is the third major Coke brand after Coke Classic and Diet Coke, and the second sugar-free Coke. Over the past three years, Coke Zero, supported by an extensive marketing campaign, has successfully penetrated into more than 50 countries and regions around the world, and achieved homeruns almost instantly in most of those markets, which haven’t been seen for quite some time after a long list of attempts by Coca-Cola.

It was reported that Coca-Cola Zero was the most successful new food and beverage launch in some of those markets, and reignited the whole cola category. Coke Zero was launched in Hong Kong in March last year, and received warm welcome by a broad range of local consumers. According to a survey made in September last year, the Coke Zero brand recognition estimated at 92% in Hong Kong. The successful launch of Coke Zero in Hong Kong also brought new lives into other Coca-Cola products in the category, and drove double-digit sales growth year-on-year in the cola sector.

Given that the carbonated beverage markets of the developed countries remained stagnant or in fact declining for quite some time due to its maturity, what Coke Zero has achieved so far is nothing but phenomenal.

The difference between Diet Coke and Coke Zero in market positioning is subtle. Diet Coke, with white and silver packaging and mild flavor, is liked more by women and mature adults who are  more health-conscious and put calorie-free first. Coke Zero instead hits young male consumers right on with stronger, more Coke Classic-like flavor. The black packaging of Coke Zero connoted stronger, bolder flavor, and unique and cool personality.

Coke Zero was sweetened with a blend of aspartame and acesulfame potassium(ace-k) when it debuted in the U.S., and the blend of sweeteners could change in different countries. Coke Zero sold in China is sweetened with a blend of aspartame, acesulfame potassium(ace-k), and sucralose.

As always before any major new product introduction, Coca-Cola did an extensive in-depth market trend research before giving the launch of Coke Zero a green light in China. The timing of the launch and the early success of Coke Zero in China would demonstrate that the recognition of the healthy image of sugar-free is increasing fast, and those who live in the metropolitan areas are about ready to widely accept zero sugar products as the mainstreamers instead of marginal players. It took nearly two decades for Diet Coke to travel to China from the day it was born in the U.S., and the sales figure was lackluster after almost a decade.

It took only three years for Coke Zero to make its debut in the Chinese market since it was born, and it is almost a hit only after initial small-scale marketing. One of the reasons for the different fate of the two sugar-free Coke in China is that the difference between consumers of China and developed countries in the awareness levels of sugar-free concept is narrowing fast in the past decade.

There are reasons to believe that Coca-Cola will carry on the same extensive marketing campaign for Coke Zero in China as what it has done in other countries, and keep the same intensity and scale if not going even further. That would be the first ever marketing campaign for a product with sugar-free as the theme of the campaign, putting through mass media targeting general public in mainland China.

If that is the case, this marketing campaign could be the milestone in course of the popularization of sugar-free food and beverage alternative in China, and a big boost to the players in the sugar-free products industry.