Coca-Cola Life: will it leave a sweet or bitter taste for Coke?

Coca-Cola is between a rock and a hard place - sugar is the new white devil, but artificial sweeteners don't hit the spot, writes Fiona McAnena, partner at Clearhound.

For years, soft drinks companies have grappled with the problem of how to produce sweetness without sugar.

First saccharin came along, the miracle sweetener, which turned out to be carcinogenic, allegedly. Then there was aspartame, which many people said simply doesn’t taste as good as the "full fat" version - a great joke, this, as regular carbonated soft drinks are pretty much fat free, just loaded with sugar.

A long story

As far back as 2007, I recall PepsiCo R&D people saying that stevia was the answer - a natural low-calorie sweetener that tasted great with no nasty after-taste.

Stevia is a plant which yields extracts of up to 300 times the sweetness of sugar. It’s been on and off FDA approval in the USA - currently on - and was approved for use in the EU in 2011. And here it is.
PepsiCo launched a reduced sugar/calories version, Pepsi Next, in Australia using stevia a couple of years ago, and then last year in France, Finland and the Netherlands.

Pepsi Next has been in the USA for three or four years, with a different sweetener blend.  There are, we hear, many people there who drink a gallon of cola a day.

These people would like to – or are told they must - reduce their sugar intake. Obviously they can’t be expected to give up their brown fizzy drinks. Thank nature for stevia.

Is Coca Cola Life the answer?

Coca-Cola Life meets a need that cannot speak its name. No one wants to say full-sugar drinks are a bad thing, nor to acknowledge that previous low-calorie or no-calorie versions were less than perfect, even though we all know the truth. So Life it is, which might mean a healthy life, or a product you can drink for life.

Stevia is green, and the message is natural and healthy sweetness, but we don’t usually think that much about the ingredients in our fizzy drinks. For me, it isn’t Coke unless it’s red. The bottle shape helps but the can looks odd.

There’s a place for this, on the spectrum from real Coke, with all its sugar and calories, through to Diet or Zero, with neither, and, arguably, less taste too.

Category growth is slow in developed markets, so the health concerns have to be tackled. Coke learned the hard way not to meddle with real Coke, so this arrives as yet another variant.

Green shoots of growth?

Coca-Cola Life will probably do well, though I would expect it will gain volume largely at the expense of its regular or diet siblings.

After the first flurry of interest it’s likely the total retail space dedicated to colas will be the same as before, so some pack sizes of other variants will give way to this one, and life will be much as before.

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