Mark Ritson: Coke Life is the harbinger of death for Coca-Cola

I can’t believe I’m saying this but Coca-Cola’s new product, Coke Life, which launched last week, looks like a dud.


If, like me, you’re in your 40s, it’s almost inconceivable that Coke would launch anything other than a blockbuster. But times change and once you get over the new green can and the splashy launch marketing, there’s nothing much else going for it.

With its 89 calories per can, it’s basically a half-way house between the 139 calorie regular can and the zero calories of Coke Light and Coke Zero. That appears to make sense given that Coke is losing sales from both these sides as regular drinkers shy away from sugar, and diet drinkers switch from artificially sweetened fare.

According to a spokesperson, Coke Life is aimed at “35- to 55-year-old consumers who are looking for a lower calorie cola with sweetness from natural sources”. In other words, as regular red can drinkers trade down on sugar, Coke Life will try to catch them and retain them within the brand. But to succeed in this mission Coke Life needs to be both low calorie and natural.

It’s neither.

I’m sure Coca-Cola feels justified with the lower calorie claim, given the 51 calorie reduction it offers compared with its regular product. But 89 calories per can is still an awful lot of sugar. If you follow the growing recommendation to limit sugar to 5 per cent of your total calorie intake each day, it pretty much completes your ration in one go.

It’s also no more natural than original Coke, i.e. not very. In the 20th century, Coke was made from Coke (as far as most of us knew) and the only alternative was Pepsi which was made from (you guessed it) Pepsi. Life really was that simple back then. These days, however, consumers look at ingredients, especially when you are pitching something as being natural. Check the side of your new green can and you will see that it contains phosphoric acid. Does that sound natural to you? And whereas once customers faced a binary choice between two colas, today’s supermarket shelves are stocked with an enormous array of stevia leaf-filled, chia-injected, organic liquids that don’t rely on acids of any kind to make them taste good.

Pepsi tried something similar back in 2008 with Pepsi Raw. Made from Kola nuts, sparkling water, apple extract and cane sugar, the new product was meant to be a more natural Pepsi. But the sub-brand was pulled within two years for the same reason I predict Coke Life will soon be dead: consumers who opt for a more natural beverage are, by definition, going to switch categories to find it.

PepsiCo chief executive Indra Nooyi confirmed as much to astonished investors last year when she announced that unless her organisation acted within the next five years “consumers will walk away from carbonated soft drinks”. And she is right. Brands like Coke and Pepsi will live on forever but the category they inhabit will shrink to a tiny fraction of what it is today, leaving them as two mighty fish in a tiny carbonated pond.

Wedgwood has remained the leading brand of fine china for more than 200 years. Its problem isn’t brand equity but rather the almost total collapse of the fine china category it resides within. Bereft of brand extensions and drained of sales in its original category, it will bob on forever; undead and unloved.

That, unfortunately, will eventually become the fate of both Coke and Pepsi. You may scoff now but you can bet there was a pottery salesman laughing at the idea of English homes serving their food on unbranded plates back in 1914. Unfortunately for Coca-Cola, which still relies on sodas for 75 per cent of its sales, it is far more exposed to the decline of the beverage category than the more diversified Pepsi.

It will take many years and the outstanding marketing efforts of Coke’s brand management team may well delay the inevitable. But innovations like Coke Life cannot and will not save the day. The era of Coke topping the brand valuation league tables and grabbing all the headlines with its latest ad campaign are over.

Coke Life, ironically enough, spells the start of the end of Coca-Cola.


Coca-Cola logo

What Coca-Cola’s new CMO means for its marketing

Seb Joseph

Coca-Cola describes its incoming chief marketing officer Marcos De Quinto as someone with ‘marketing in his DNA’ but it is his “operational expertise” the business will be looking to instil a more disciplined approach to marketing investments.