Branding with Zero Sugar

By Cornelius Hummel

I’ve recently changed my diet to avoid added sugar. You might have heard a phrase like this before — be it about sugar, meat, gluten, processed foods, and whatnot. So, well, yawn. By itself, another statement of a food hype apologist with missionary zeal wouldn’t be very interesting. But in the case of sugar at least, if you follow the news you’ll know that it’s not just me. There is a sizable and growing anti-sugar movement with a ton of media coverage. Even legislative action with taxes on sugar is well on the way in a number of countries. At the end of the day the message is clear: sugar is the new killer. That sticks.

Obviously, there must be effects on the industry. Let’s look at Coca-Cola, which is in a delicate situation. In Germany, for example, the classic Coca-Cola is responsible for 40 percent of the company’s revenue. Now if more and more people avoid the product due to dietary considerations, the company will be in trouble. This shows in the operating results. Net revenues in the first quarter 2017 declined 11 percent, and it’s partly attributed to the high amount of sugar in their product range.

New sugar-free products are supposed to take up the slack, but there’s also an implication for Coca-Cola’s brand strategy. Coca-Cola is one of the strongest global brands, and it has to ensure that its image stays in sync with consumer taste, preference, and lifestyles. Appreciating the anti-sugar movement, Coca-Cola needs to detach its brand from sugar to reinforce relevance.

That’s what Coca-Cola’s “One Brand” strategy does. It unites formerly distinct brands — Coca-Cola, Coke Zero, Coke Life, Diet Coke, each with its own identity — as variants under the umbrella of Coca-Cola. This means for advertising that it will always show all four variants, and it means for product branding that all cans and bottles will be in the same style (with different secondary colors to distinguish each variant).

From a branding perspective, this achieves two goals. Firstly, it allows the formerly distinct brands to be closely associated with Coca-Cola and benefit from its appeal. Consumers will be encouraged to try all variants of the same brand that they know and love. Secondly, Coca-Cola as a brand gets a broader scope beyond its sugary origins and, in this respect, proves to remain relevant for today’s consumers.

Just last month, Coca-Cola introduced the new name, new design, and new recipe for Coca-Cola Zero Sugar (formerly known as Coke Zero) as the latest milestone in rolling out the new strategy. It will be interesting to see the business impact in the upcoming quarterly reports. But already, it’s a bold case that is in line with MetaDesign’s approach of using the power of creativity to transform business for the better. I’ll drink to that — with zero sugar.

Cornelius Hummel is a senior brand strategist at MetaDesign Berlin. 

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