As we sent our February 2017 issue to press, I was chuckling to myself wondering if Lady Gaga was going to sing her new single, “Perfect Illusion,” at the Pepsi Zero Sugar Super Bowl LI Halftime Show (she did not). It would have been the perfect irony in the substitution of what already was a perfect product sidetracked by the perfectly logical pursuit of what consumers appeared to want – which is anything but perfect science.
In case I’ve lost you, I’ll provide a little chronology. Diet Pepsi was a fine diet cola, albeit a perennial No. 2 behind Diet Coke. When aspartame started taking some nasty hits on social media – and, coincidentally, sales of Diet Pepsi had been sagging for a while – Pepsi replaced the questionable non-nutritive sweetener in mid-2015 with two slightly less questionable sweeteners, sucralose and acesulfame potassium.
Marketers trumpeted it as giving the people what they want. Many consumers, myself included, noticed the change in taste … and were not happy. Result: Sales of “new” Diet Pepsi took a deeper dive.
A year later, PepsiCo said it was launching a new diet cola, Diet Pepsi Classic Sweetener Blend, with aspartame. The name's a mouthful, and the product hasn't been flying off the shelves, although I like the taste.
PepsiCo continues to keep new Diet Pepsi on the market, but is repositioning 10-year-old brand Pepsi Max, which has aspartame, as Pepsi Zero Sugar. It tastes to me like the old Diet Pepsi – although several people at PepsiCo have gone out of their way to convince me this is an evolution of Pepsi Max, not a return to the old Diet Pepsi formula. Which reminds me of Lady Gaga's first hit: Poker Face.
Naming the halftime show for Pepsi Zero Sugar is a lot of marketing muscle behind a relaunched, second-tier product (although it is more popular elsewhere in the world). And reports were that this was to be PepsiCo's only Super Bowl marketing effort. No other beverages, no other product lines, are scheduled for promotion during the Big Game.
PepsiCo’s Frito-Lay division has produced several memorable commercials during a 10-year Super Bowl run. Its “Crash the Super Bowl” ads for several years gave unknown creatives a once-in-a-lifetime chance to have their ad aired to millions during the big game (which usually ranks among the highest-watched TV shows of each year). But not this year; Frito-Lay sat out this Super Bowl. Publicly, there has been no connecting that decision to the huge corporate initiative behind Pepsi Zero Sugar, but what do you think?
It's obvious to me PepsiCo is hoping to make Pepsi Zero Sugar the replacement for Diet Pepsi. More power to them, because I think it tastes great, certainly better than current Diet Pepsi.
I don’t mean to beat up on PepsiCo. I admire risk-taking and listening to consumers. But I think Pepsi’s marketers and product developers learned a hard lesson with the removal of aspartame from Diet Pepsi: Don’t believe everything you read on the internet. The company looked like it was doing a bold, wise and responsible thing when it reformulated Diet Pepsi. If the Tweeters and Facebookers were to be believed, there should have been a run on the new Diet Pepsi, leaving Diet Coke (which contains aspartame) in the dust.
Such are the dangers of trying to interpret what consumers want. What they really want versus what they say they want. And whether a small but vocal group on the internet represents a great silent majority.