Coca-Cola’s UK marketing boss on ditching sugar and staying at the ‘forefront of marketing’

As Coca-Cola rolls out its biggest marketing investment in a decade with the Coca-Cola Zero Sugar campaign launch, the brand’s GB marketing director Bobby Brittain tells Marketing Week how it aims to influence consumers to make healthier choices while staying at the forefront of marketing.

Coca-Cola One Brand

Summer is an important time for any soft drinks brand, and Coca-Cola knows this well. Sponsoring tournaments such as UEFA Euro 2016 and the Rio Olympics give the fizzy drinks brand an opportunity to have its time in the sun, while new product launches can highlight its social mission to get consumers to make healthier choices to an engaged global audience.

Earlier this week, Coca-Cola launched its new Coca-Cola Zero Sugar product as part of a £10m campaign, accompanied by the strapline ‘Tastes more like Coke and looks more like Coke’.

It marks the next step in the company’s strategy as it aims to move from “offering choice to shaping choice” and help consumers reduce their sugar consumption by actively encouraging more people to choose a no-sugar option – an important goal as the company is plagued by public health concerns around obesity and the impending sugar tax.

Marketing Week caught up with Brittain to find out more about the company’s plans to move ‘Classic Coke’ drinkers onto other variants, its surprise around the introduction of a sugar tax in the UK and the future of Coke Life.

What is the strategic thinking behind the Coca-Cola Zero Sugar launch?

If we go back six months when we launched our ‘One Brand’ strategy, we were clearly preparing the ground strategically for the encompassing of Coca-Cola brand in all of its constituent parts. The Coca-Cola Zero Sugar activity has been 18 months in the making, and is paying [classic] Coke the ultimate compliment. As part of the promise, we are saying that it tastes more like Coke and looks more like Coke. Coke Zero Sugar is building on the Coca-Cola trademark, and even more importantly on the Coke classic brand.

Our ambition strategically is to grow the trademark. We no longer want people to drink more coke, but have people drink more [different types of] coke. There is an important distinction there because clearly we do have a portfolio [of variants]. It’s about not only offering that choice, but also shaping that choice.

Where did the Coke Zero product initially go wrong?

Let’s be clear, there are two million people that will happily drink and buy Coke Zero currently, so that’s a fantastic thing. Most people in any industry would love to have two million loyal consumers.

If we go back 10 years to when we launched Coke Zero, we launched a brand. The strategy then was to launch completely standalone brands, which is what we did very successfully 33 years ago with Diet Coke, and it’s what we did again in 2006 with Coke Zero. But by creating a separate brand with a distinct personality, what we weren’t doing well enough was communicating that the product has no sugar. And we do need to shape that [consumer] choice more than we have in the past.

coke taste

With the Coke Zero Sugar launch, is Coke Life now under threat? Could the Zero Sugar option cannibalise its sales?

Coke Life won’t be impacted in any way. We know from our consumer research that [the buyers] are completely different groups of consumers. When we launched Coke Life, we didn’t see an impact on Coke Zero.

Coke Life has carved itself out a very nice little niche. It was never intended to be more than that niche. Our COO James Quincey said back in January that the ambition for Coke Life shouldn’t be overstated, and we haven’t. The ambition for Coke Zero Sugar is a different dimension, as that’s where we’re investing and where we see our growth coming from.

“The adrenaline shot for the whole sector is coming through Coke Zero Sugar. We have never invested as much in the last decade. That’s a very bold statement of intent.”

Bobby Brittain, GB marketing director, Coca-Cola

Earlier this year, the brand said “We are not the cause of the obesity crisis but the solution”. Is this just about cutting sugar out of products or do you have wider plans?

It is linked to the whole taxation discussion. We are completely aligned with the Government on the issue of childhood and obesity in general. In society that’s an issue every responsible company needs to wake up to. 

What we’re not aligned on is the solution the Government proposed. Clearly, we don’t agree with taxation as a way of changing consumer behaviour. It doesn’t work. We think [our strategy of launching no sugar options] is a far more elegant and effective way of addressing obesity than by the blunt instrument of a sugar tax, which is globally unproven to reduce obesity.

We weren’t surprised by the sugar tax announcement. The fact that the levy has been introduced in a number of countries around the world meant it would always be part of a consideration set. We were surprised by the lack of consultation that the industry as a whole didn’t have, it was strung at last minute and ill conceived as a result. But as an ongoing process, we will consult with the Treasury and make sure that our point of view as a manufacturer and as an industry is better represented. We will negotiate in the appropriate ways.

What have the results been of the ‘One Brand’ strategy in the UK so far?

The brand affinity scores that we track with Millwood Brown and the tracker we have on the brand campaign, all of those results give us great encouragement and gave us the confidence to use the ‘Taste the Feeling’ framework for Coca-Cola Zero Sugar. It’s something that we intend to continue with and use for Diet Coke, as it will look more like rest of the family over time.

Coca-Cola wants 50% of its sales by 2020 to come from its non-sugar options. How will it ensure that this happens?

With the investment we’re putting behind Coca-Cola Zero Sugar we anticipate it will bring forward 50/50 ambition for our portfolio, where 50% of consumer sales will be no sugar. Already 43% of our [sales] mix is no sugar, but with the Coke Zero Sugar push I anticipate it will be much sooner than 2020.

The Coca-Cola company has been at the forefront of marketing for the last 130 years, that’s what we do. We are one of the best examples of a brand that has been created in consumers’ minds through constant innovation. Not just in design but through packaging and experiential. That’s not going to change.

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