When I started working at Marketing Week in the summer of 2015, the Coke Life brand had been in the UK market for a year. At the time sugar was not yet public enemy number one and the UK Government’s sugar tax had yet to be announced.
The big idea behind Coca-Cola Life was that it would offer a lower calorie option for more health conscious consumers. It was the brand’s first cola sweetened from a blend of sugar and stevia plant extract, and contained 45% less sugar and calories than the original Coca-Cola variant.
Yet from the beginning the product was criticised and the reasons for its launch questioned. One of the most outspoken critics was Marketing Week’s columnist Mark Ritson, who called Coke Life “the harbinger of death for Coca-Cola”. Ouch.
The main problem, he said, was that the 89-calorie product was a “half-way house” between the 139 calorie regular can and the zero calories of Diet Coke and Coke Zero. While at first glance this might seem to make strategic sense, promoting natural sweeteners over the artifical ones that make Diet Coke and Coke Zero taste sweet, in reality it failed to marry natural with low sugar.
“89 calories per can is still an awful lot of sugar. If you follow the growing recommendation to limit sugar to 5% of your total calorie intake each day, it pretty much completes your ration in one go,” explained Ritson at the time.
Only six months later, the brand decided to roll out its ‘One brand’ strategy globally, which meant Coke Life would no longer get its own marketing campaigns. Instead, Coke’s four variants – Coca-Cola ‘classic’, Diet Coke, Coke Zero and Coke Life – would always be placed together in any given ad. In short: they would be sharing the spotlight.
Despite Coca-Cola Life sales very quickly going into freefall, Coca-Cola remained surprisingly upbeat about its prospects.
Combine this with a £10m investment in Coca-Cola Zero, which went on to become Coca-Cola Zero Sugar, and you might get a slightly clearer idea of why Coke Life slowly faded out of the picture. Life was a brand that never got Coca-Cola’s full attention and the fact it was routinely shifted around gave the impression its Life was running out from day one.
We have monitored Coca-Cola Life sales closely. As expected, Coca-Cola Life started off well, before sales quickly levelled out.
As Marketing Week editor Russell Parsons explains: “New products, particularly in FMCG, generally start strongly, fuelled by a mixture of price promotion and heavyweight in-store activity. Maintaining that early momentum, however, often proves more difficult, even for a company with the marketing might of Coca-Cola.”
Over the past year sales have been in freefall. Back in December, figures from Nielsen showed Coke Life sales were down 57%. Yet despite this Coca-Cola continue to back the brand. When asked for its reaction to the drastic drop in sales, Coca-Cola claimed it had built up a “small but loyal following”.
However that “small but loyal following” continued to get smaller. Nielsen figures given to Marketing Week today (6 April), show the sales decline accelerating. During the year to 18 March, Coca-Cola Life’s volume sales fell 73.1% and dropped 74.6% in value terms. Over the same period, volume sales for Coca-Cola Zero Sugar rocketed by 81.2% and value sales by 56.6%.
Given these figures it should come as little surprise that Coca-Cola has made the difficult decision to axe the brand in the UK. A more natural, lower calorie, slightly healthier product appeared to tick all the boxes and be tapping into consumer demand.
But the product was placed in a firm ‘no man’s land’ – not healthy or natural enough for those looking for these characteristics in their fizzy drink and not classic Coke-enough for those not concerned about how much sugar is in their drink or who see it as a treat for special occasions. And so its demise comes as no shock. The only surprise should be that it took Coca-Cola this long to take action.