The Good, The Bad and the Ugly of Diet Coke

I am not exaggerating when I say: the Incubeta office is fueled by Diet Coke. In fact, the Marketing team alone is probably responsible for a quarter of all Diet Coke consumption in the company. We know Diet Coke. We love Diet Coke. So, imagine our disappointment at the latest ad campaign, “Because I Can”, from Coca-Cola. It got me to thinking: what’s happened to Coke’s advertising strategy? 

Ruthie Pinion

Off the top of my head, their ads have always been effective: instantly recognisable and fairly entertaining. Was I wrong?

It seemed like the perfect opportunity for another in our G|B|U series; so settle in, grab your favourite beverage, and get ready for a history lesson.

The Good

There is little in this world that I love more than a good Christmas ad and, being roughly 120 years old, Coca-Cola has had a lot of time to get it right. It’s no surprise, then, that one of Coke’s best adverts is their Christmassy iteration of 1995, an ad that is as old as I am.

For many, the mere sound of this advert marks the start of Christmas; it’s an ad that is synonymous with both Coke and the holiday season. This is a masterclass in brand awareness: you know instinctively from the first note that this is the Coke advert. It even uses a painting of a Santa that has been around since the 1930s. Talk about brand continuity.

Another great campaign that I should mention is the “Share a Coke” campaign. While I never found a bottle with my name on it (but if you want to send me one, I’d happily accept), this was perhaps their strongest commercial effort. “Share a Coke” was originally launched in Australia in 2012 before being rolled out across the world until 2014 and featured over one thousand names gracing Coke bottles. The campaign became a viral phenomenon: 235,000 tweets on the #ShareACoke hashtag, proposals and 25 million new Facebook followers all demonstrating it’s remarkable success. Plus, it was a sweet message: share a coke with your friends.

There are many others that I had remembered fondly, and watching them back I still think they’re great. The Happiness Factory, Heist, the Polar Bears, all ads that I can still remember even though they haven’t been on the air in about 10 years.

Once upon a time, Coke’s advertising had heart.

The Bad

Speaking of Christmas, it is a well-established fact that brands jump on holidays and days of celebration. Christmas, Valentine’s Day, Royal Weddings: if they spot a chance to make more money, you can bet they’ll be making an ad about it. And, for the most part, that’s okay. The consumer understands. They might roll their eyes a little, but they’ll accept it.

There are some things, however, that should be left well enough alone. Perhaps the landmark ruling allowing Saudi Arabian women to drive?

Eyes certainly rolled when Coke released a new ad in Saudi Arabia in 2018 which featured a man teaching his daughter to drive. She’s shaky at first, but that’s all fixed by a sip of Coke and they drive off into the desert. It’s a tricky one: some applaud Coca-Cola for their inclusivity, but many find the ad tasteless and I have to agree. This was a clear attempt at capitalisation, and an unnecessary one at that.

It’s not the only time that Coca-Cola has been called out for being culturally insensitive. In 2015, a Christmas ad for the Mexican market showed young, attractive, white people appearing in a Mexican town with Coke and a Christmas tree to the awe of the town’s residents. This perpetuated a stereotype of the “white saviour”, with indigenous people appearing subordinate. The tone-deaf ad was quickly pulled after substantial backlash.

The Ugly

Unfortunately, sales have been down year on year, with the Sugar Tax posing an even bigger threat to regular Coke. One of the reasons for the slump is the recent bad press Diet Coke’s artificial sweeteners have been receiving.

According to Susan E. Swithers, a professor of psychological sciences and a behavioural neuroscientist, “Findings from a variety of studies show that routine consumption of diet sodas, even one per day, can be connected to higher likelihood of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, metabolic syndrome and high blood pressure, in addition to contributing to weight gain.” 

And with younger generations becoming much more health-conscious, you can bet Diet Coke is taking a hit.

In order to beat its bad rep, Coca-Cola needed a new campaign focused on the younger generations to get them drinking Diet Coke again. The outcome, “Because I Can”, goes so far towards the vanilla that it is bland, boring, and works to offend an entire generation.

There are a number of different iterations of this ad: the SuperBowl spot featuring Gillian Jacobs, the British version with the same script but an English actress, individual ones for different flavours, and a Spanish one that appears on their Puerto Rico YouTube channel. None of them are good. (Well, the Spanish one might be but my language skills are lacking).

Each one is a snapshot into this stereotyped idea of a millennial. Everyone uses the word super. Buzzwords like “athleisure” and “yurt” are dropped left and right. The only way I could be more annoyed is if they told me it was better than avocado toast. We don’t all love avocado toast.

On top of this, the message of “Life is Short, Have a Diet Coke” is incredibly patronising. In essence, Coke is encouraging its consumers to not care about their health, so long as it makes them happy. An ad full of generalisations and yet they gloss over the one that is most likely to cost them sales.

The sheer amount of negative comments on these videos, the op-eds in marketing publications, and even the frustration I felt that led me to do a special edition of G|B|U are enough to show that this was a really bad move.

If Coca-Cola can teach us one thing it’s that you aren’t immune to bad marketing choices, no matter how well ingrained your brand is in the public consciousness. It may have been easier in the days before political correctness, and the youth may well be a bunch of easily offended snowflakes, but they’re who’s buying your products now.

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