The Cola Wars have truly become a jungle out there with Pepsi following Coke’s lead in initially marketing a soda exclusively on Amazon. Pepsi True, a “mid-calorie” beverage, will compete directly with yet another recently launched Coke beverage, Coca-Cola Life.
Pepsi True, “first reported by Beverage Digest, will contain a mix of real sugar and stevia-leaf extract, giving it 30% less sugar than regular Pepsi,” reports E.J. Schultz in Advertising Age. “It will be sold in 24-packs of 7.5-ounce cans that will contain 60 calories each, according to a PepsiCo, spokeswoman, who … said the product ‘will go to brick-and-mortar eventually but no timeline set for that yet.’”
Cola-Cola’s re-launch of the “Mountain Dew-ish citrus-flavored” Surge sold out within hours of its exclusive return on the e-commerce site a couple of weeks ago, as the Los Angeles Times Jenn Harris reported.
Coke, meanwhile, “is also in the process of a gradual and targeted launch of its own reduced-calorie, stevia-sweetened Coca-Cola Life, a cola that has 35% fewer calories than its flagship Coke,” reports CNBC’s Sara Eisen. “Like True, Coca-Cola Life mixes the stevia with sugar to achieve its sweet taste, and it also sports green-hued packaging.”
Surge, which Coke sold from 1996 to 2001 behind a “Feel the Rush” tagline, contains 230 calories and 56 grams of sugar in a 16-oz. serving, reports Harris. It is back on the digital shelves at Amazon but only through several third-party sellers.
Beverage Digest editor and publisher John Sicher tells Reuters’ Bobbi Rebell in a video interview that he thinks the mid-calorie launches are a good idea, pointing out that diet sodas made exclusively with artificial sweeteners are in decline (down 6.3% last year).
“Both Pepsi and Coke have to innovate. Consumers want lower-calorie beverages with natural sweeteners,” Sicher said. While acknowledging “mid-cals in the past have not been successful,” he observes that “it’s a different time and place now.”
“This is the latest part of a massive, transformational journey that we've been on,” says PepsiCo North America CMO Simon Lowden in a phone interview with USA Today’s Bruce Horovitz, who reports that about half of the company’s beverages are zero- or low-calorie compared to 25% 15 years ago. The target for Pepsi True “is adults in their late 20s or early 30s.”
A Pepsi spokeswoman tells the Wall Street Journal’s Tripp Mickle that “distributing Pepsi True through Amazon.com will give it a chance to raise consumer awareness for the product and gauge consumer response before it begins putting the new soda on shelves at convenience stores, supermarkets and retail outlets like Walmart.”
Stevia, which is manufactured from leaves of a plant “traditionally used for hundreds of years in both Brazil and Paraguay,” as Wikipedia points out, also has a long history of use in Japan. The FDA said it could “be lawfully marketed and added” to food products in 2008 after holding it in bureaucratic limbo for years.
Business Insider’s Hayley Peterson is among those who point out that “stevia's bitter aftertaste is widely polarizing” and “caused an uproar this summer when Coca-Cola began quietly adding it to VitaminWater. Consumers hated the taste of the new sugar-and-stevia blend and Coca-Cola was ultimately forced to return to its original recipe.”
“The fact of the matter is the taste is still not right,” Euromonitor senior beverages analyst Jonas Feliciano tells The Huffington Post’s Alexander C. Kaufman. “It still doesn’t taste like a full-flavored product. It’s closer, but it’s still not there.”
“He said soda companies would be better off launching new brands, sweetened with stevia from the outset,’ Kaufman writes, “rather than tinkering with existing soft drinks.”
Fortune’s Phil Wahba reports that Pepsi’s launched stevia-based Next in a few markets in 2012 but that CMO Lowden “told the Associated Press that he imagines [it] will eventually be phased out in the U.S.” It “has a mix of three artificial sweeteners and high fructose corn syrup,” Wahba writes.
Time’s Bill Saporito applauds PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi for ignoring carpers on Wall Street and keeping the company “on an innovation diet that has worked. Pepsi now gets 20% of its revenue from its nutrition businesses, for instance, which helped the company beat its financial targets last year.”
But Saporito also points out that Nooyi’s chairmanship of the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation, a five-year-old coalition of more than over 250 organizations helping families and schools fight childhood obesity, “hasn’t placated her severest critics.
“Maybe they’ll find Pepsi True easier to swallow,” he concludes.