“Zero sugar” has replaced the “diet” for many calorie-free soft drinks. Canada Dry and Schweppe’s ginger beer, 7Up, A&W and Sunkist, made by Keurig Dr Pepper, now label their diet drinks as “zero sugar”. (An exception is the namesake Dr Pepper brand, which still comes in “diet” packaging in addition to another zero sugar version.)
The reason for the overhaul: The word “diet” has gone out of fashion – especially for Millennials and Gen Zs.
“No Gen Z wants to be on a diet these days,” he said, adding that the company “will continue to innovate and support that business.”
But disgust for the word diet does not signal an aversion to low-calorie drinks. The diet soda segment, which includes diet and zero-calorie-labeled drinks, has grown since it first became popular in the 1960s. By 2020, the US diet market for carbonated soft drinks in the United States reached $ 11.2 billion, according to Mintel, a market research company.
The segment is still far smaller than the market for regular carbonated soft drinks, which was 28.2 billion dollars in 2020, but it is growing much faster. Sales of diet soft drinks are up approx. 19.5% from 2018, compared to only 8.4% for regular soft drinks in the same period, which makes it an attractive segment for soft drink producers seeking growth.
Developing attitudes to dieting as a concept mean that soda producers must place an emphasis on diet brand when continuing with zero-sugar offerings – even when, as in the case of the brands owned by Keurig Dr Pepper, they sell the exact same drink.
The tactic can help soda producers bring more consumers, especially younger ones, into the group. The industry needs these customers if it wants to grow the soda market.
The birth of diet cola
Diet drinks first became popular in the 1960s.
“It was first stored among medicines instead of soft drinks, but the focus soon shifted to the growing number of weight loss dieters across the country,” she wrote. Diet Rite was a hit, prompting Coca-Cola to introduce Tab in 1963, and Pepsi began selling Diet Pepsi a year later.
The segment received steam in the following years. Coca-Cola wanted to expand beyond Tab, launching Diet Coke in 1982.
At the time, Coca-Cola faced many of the same challenges it faces today: It needed to revitalize the Coca-Cola brand, and thought it might help to add a cola-branded diet.
The company broke with what the product should be called. It considered using the term “sugar-free” instead of diet, but “many saw it as nonsense on Coca-Cola’s main ingredient,” according to the post. In the end, the company went with the “diet” because it “was the simplest articulation of the promise of the brand.”
But a few decades later, Coca-Cola returned to the idea of a sugar-free branded product. This time it wanted to attract the demographics that seemed to avoid the company’s diet drinks: younger consumers and men.
Zero hits the stage
Other companies also wanted a more neutral way of advertising sugar-free products.
Eliminating the word “diet” creates a “gender-free way to talk about the same subject,” said Jim Watson, a senior beverage analyst at Rabobank, who told CNN Business that “the diet was definitely taken over as something for women.”
But the advent of zero sugar drinks was not just about gender: it marked a turning point for the general popularity of diet drinks. Alex Beckett, global food and beverage analyst at Mintel, said the word diet “began to fall out of fashion … with the rise of zero.”
Billing a drink that is free of calories and sugar is also about addressing changing ideas about health, and highlighting the absence of sugar from the drink as a positive trait in itself.
“Although the diet term may be associated with strict regimens or deprivation, the term ‘zero’ has fewer negative connotations, which simply corresponds to a cleaner profile,” according to an April Mintel report.
The new recipe hit shelves in the US this summer, and since then “we have seen that 23% of today’s Coke Zero Sugar consumers are new,” said Alex Ebanks, a spokesman for the company, adding that Coca-Cola will continue to invest in the product next year and beyond.
The competition is heating up
While big brands are sharpening their focus on their zero-sugar offerings, they are facing competition from other categories and emerging with new ideas.
A major competitor, according to Mintels Beckett, is carbonated water.
“A lot of people go over … from carbonated sodas to sparkling water,” he said, because these drinks often have no sweeteners, no calories and “have a healthier image.”
In addition to sparkling water, competitors enter the room with fresh spins on soda. For example: Soda that promotes intestinal health.
Olipop, a startup that says it makes “a new type of soda,” sells recurring flavors such as classic root beer, vintage cola and others. The sodas, which range from about 35-50 calories each, are made with a blend of ingredients such as Jerusalem artichoke and manioc root which the company says supports digestive health. Poppi, which also sells traditional soda flavors in addition to fruit flavors, comes with a similar claim, with a “for a healthy gut” label on the front of colorful boxes.
“Consumers are voting for our wallets, and sugar is something people definitely want less of in our lives,” said Danny Stepper, CEO of LA Libations, an incubator for beverage companies. “It opens the door to many opportunities and categories,” he said. “Consumers want new things, so it opens the door to new ideas.”