In March 2013, Coca-Cola introduced a reduced-calorie version of Sprite in the United Kingdom, sweetened with a blend of sugar and stevia following the launch of Sprite with stevia in France in 2012. This is hardly the first attempt by a major soft drink conglomerate to launch a mid-calorie version of an established carbonate brand. However, unlike most mid-calories options, which are positioned as additions to a brand’s portfolio of regular and diet drinks, Coca-cola intends for its reduced-calorie Sprite to completely replace the full-calorie option. This bold move appears to be part of a strategy to combat the increasing criticism linking sugary carbonates to the obesity epidemic. Rather than offering a variety of differing caloric options, the aim is to simply lower the overall sugar content of a few of its flagship brands in order to win back consumers.
In 2012, carbonates experienced the lowest off-trade volume growth of any type of soft drink, increasing by only 1.4% worldwide. In an attempt to maintain consumer interest and possibly attract new customers, many carbonate companies have concentrated on providing zero and reduced sugar alternatives of their most popular brands. Some recent examples include Dr. Pepper Snapple Group’s ‘Ten Platform’ which features ten-calorie versions of its core brands: Dr. Pepper, 7-Up, Sunkist, A&W, and Canada Dry, in addition to Pepsi Next, which has 60% less calories than full-calorie Pepsi, launched by Pepsi Co. in the US in 2012.
Coca-cola is taking this strategy one step further in the UK by completing pulling full-calorie Sprite off the shelves in France and the United Kingdom. In these markets all Sprite products will be either reduced or zero calorie. Sprite Zero, the company's zero-calorie version will remain on the market, accompanied by a Sprite with 30 per cent less sugar than the original version. The calorie reduction is made possible due to a blend of sugar and natural herb stevia - often touted by industry insiders as the latest contender for the ‘holy grail’ of natural sweeteners. Despite the limited calories, the marketing campaign for the new Sprite primarily focuses on its flavour, rather than its well-being properties. The front of the bottle or can reads “Rediscover Sprite” with “Now the most refreshing taste ever” written on the back. The lower calorie count is also noted, albeit in smaller font, confirming Coca-cola's main intention is to improve the taste and lower the sugar, rather than just offer a reduced calorie carbonate.
The brand's innovative positioning is also apparent in the actual amount of sugar reduction taken place. While Sprite with stevia certainly contains less sugar than the original version, with 21.8 grams and 91kcal per 330 ml serving it is a far cry from a typical mid-calorie soda – Pepsi Next for example, has 60kcal per serving, while Dr.Pepper 10 has just 10kcal. The restrained calorie reduction of the new Sprite speaks to the conundrum of finding the ‘sweet spot’ between flavour and calorie reduction. The flavour discrepancy between diet and low calorie carbonates and their full-calorie counterparts remains a significant hurdle in wooing consumers. By reducing the amount of sugar by 30 per cent – significant but not dramatic – Coca-cola is banking on the fact that loyal Sprite drinkers will barely notice the change, while the lower calorie count will appeal to new consumers.
A new conversation?
Coca-cola has already instituted similar calorie-reduction schemes to its Nestea brand in France in 2012, in addition to its Glaceau Vitamin Water beverages, in France and the UK, since 2013. Both products no longer have full-calorie options, only ones that use a sugar and stevia blend. By changing the make-up of the original beverage instead of simply offering alternatives, the company's strategy marks a significant shift in the response of soft drink manufacturers to the increasing public criticism. Coca-cola is betting that consumer preferences favour restrained sugar reduction, which appears supported by the fact that in 2012, regular Sprite increased by 3% in value in the UK, while Sprite Zero sales declined by 19%. While this tactic may cauterise the loss of sales – even with a value increase, Sprite experienced a 3% decline in volume in the UK in 2012 – it remains to be seen if this will do more to revitalize the fledging carbonate industry.