Monthly Archives: April 2015

Diet Pepsi drops aspartame: Gilding the Lily?

PepsiCo just announced that it will be taking the artificial sweetener aspartame out of Diet Pepsi and replacing with another artificial sweetener, sucralose (known more commonly as Splenda®), combined with another sweetener named acesulfame-K (‘Ace-K’), which is a lower cost ’sweetener helper’.

apm-free D Pepsi

The stated reason is to respond to consumer objection to aspartame, as stated by a Pepsi Sr. VP: “Aspartame is the number one reason consumers are dropping diet soda.”

The more likely reason is that Diet Pepsi volume is down over 5% in the last year, part of a long-term slide, and nothing so far has worked to reverse the trend.

But this change is unlikely to make a material difference, for a few key reasons.

First, let me risk public embarrassment to try to establish my bona fides.  I marketed aspartame (Equal® Sweetener) for 6 years, and sucralose (Splenda) for another 5.  Did a lot of consumer research during those years.

DavesSweetenerBonaFides

Left: failing the dorky marketer test. Right: at a trade show, excitedly pitching sweeteners

Here’s why I don’t think this will make a difference:

1) Consumers generally don’t know what’s in their diet soda to begin with.  When asked open-endedly about ingredients in diet sodas, they have a vague notion that they contain artificial sweeteners, but the sweetener is not often mentioned by name.  When prompted, they will recognize aspartame.  But while consumers may theatrically claim that they avoid aspartame when they’re in a focus group, in reality very few actually check labels.

2) Consumers are generally full of it when it comes to stated preferences.  They will tell you all day long that they want less fat, less sugar, less salt, etc – – but in reality they will rarely change ingrained habits if there’s even the slightest risk of compromise (such as taste or cost).

3) Non-users or lapsed users have a handy reason for why they don’t use the product.  Aspartame has enough negative PR that it is an easy, politically correct and inarguable reason as to why surveyed consumers aren’t using the product.  But the true answer is a more complicated mix of dynamics including macro consumption trends, emergence of new alternatives, and changing demographics (‘modern’ diet sodas were first introduced, and gained loyal followings, in the early 1980s).

4) Changing out one artificial sweetener for another just reminds consumers that diet sodas generally contain artificial sweeteners.  Not a great plan to bring in new users. 

5) Changing ingredients to meet claimed consumer preferences is no guarantee of success.  3 years ago ConAgra changed its Hunt’s ketchup back to High Fructose Corn Sugar after a 2-year switch to sugar, ostensibly to answer consumer objections to HFCS.  Sales volumes showed that consumers didn’t really care.

Hunts No HFCS

6) Most importantly, consumers like their products the way they are.  ANY CHANGE in a loyal user’s product formulation will arouse suspicion.  A product as iconic as Diet Pepsi owes its unique taste to the specific combination of sweeteners in its formula.  It is impossible to improve the taste of Diet Pepsi, because its ideal is defined by its current taste.  So any change will alienate current users, who are currently drinking it even knowing in the back of their minds that it contains an artificial sweetener.

Ironically, this is the same category where New Coke infamously demonstrated what happens when you change the formulation of a well-loved product.  It will be interesting to see whether this ‘New Diet Pepsi’ fares any better.

Below is an introductory spot for New Coke in 1985.  In retrospect, a product and spokesperson that ultimately followed similar paths, albeit on different timing.

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Change.org gets it right on rotating April Fools’ Day.

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I’m not a huge fan of Change.org – not that it doesn’t do a lot of great things, but because of its too-frequent tendency to allow weepy personal causes that are more like fund-raising than awareness-raising.

However, an arguably trivial recent Change.org petition to rotate April Fools’ Day throughout the month resonated with me.

The petition (viewable at www.change.org/aprilfoolsshift) simply recommends moving this ‘Holiday’ one day later every year, thus repeating the cycle every 30 years. That means if this change is adopted, we should actually be celebrating April Fools’ Day on April 2 this year, April 3 next year, and so on.

01-april-fools-shame.w529.h352.2x

Why is this a good idea?

There are a few days in the calendar that are traditionally bad to have a birthday: February 29 (although they will inevitably argue they age at ¼ the speed of the rest of us); Christmas/Hanukah/Kwanzaa (because one way or the other you will be left wanting in the gift department); and of course, April 1.

The Change.org argument is that people with this unfortunate birth date are uniquely subject to gentle ridicule their entire lives, and that lifelong association with April Fools’ Day (and perhaps some resulting lack of confidence) could actually be cumulatively damaging to their careers. Reputational harm was not the original intent of this holiday. Rotating the holiday retains the fun part of the day (it’s still in April), without the collateral damage.

This is an excellent example of the power of newer social media to positively influence even age-old traditions.

Below is a list of notables whose birthdays happen to fall on April 1 (below, from http://www.famousbirthdays.com). I can personally identify at most 4 (Susan Boyle, Jimmy Cliff, Debbie Reynolds, Ronnie Lane) – 5 if Rudolph Isley is in fact one of the Isley Brothers. A rather motley crew, actually (Kid Ink? really?); it seems that this theory might have some credence. These people need a little time out of the April Fools’ spotlight so they can build or salvage their careers, or at least glide a bit more gracefully into the sunset.

Old April Fools'

So go to the petition page and sign it. With over 330,000 signatures, there are apparently quite a few people who are in agreement.

The people with April 1 birthdays can get on with their lives, and those with April 2 birthdays can pretend they never heard of it.

So hope you enjoyed your day, Adam Shulman, Clark Gregg, Supla (?) and Michel Troisgros — (Marvin Gaye and Sir Alec Guinness, be glad you missed it)

April 1 Birthdays

Susan Boyle

Kid Ink

Asa Butterfield

Ella Eyre

Elizabeth Gutiérrez

Hillary Scott

Park Ye-jin

Matt Lanter

David Oyelowo

Jimmy Cliff

Debbie Reynolds

Taran Killam

Annette O’Toole

Rudolph Isley

Ana Maria Braga

Sam Huntington

Chris J. Evans

Vincent Bolloré

Milan Kundera

Jon Gosselin

Cécile Duflot

Marcel Amont

Barry Sonnenfeld

John Butler

Ronnie Lane

April 2 Birthdays

Michael Fassbender

Christopher Meloni

Bethany Joy Lenz

Linda Hunt

Leon Russell

Roselyn Sánchez

Marie-Ange Nardi

Ibrahim Afellay

Clark Gregg

Lee DeWyze

David Ferrer

Jesse Plemons

Adam Shulman

Gregory Abbott

Nati Abascal

Supla

Marc Caro

Mariella Ahrens

Éric Besson

Marvin Gaye

Serge Gainsbourg

Alec Guinness

Michel Troisgros