Al Ries, co-inventor of Positioning, is an intelligent provocateur. He recently had some advice for Coca Cola about the “slam sugar” movement. In an article in Advertising Age, he recommends that Coca Cola remove all sugar from the product, drop Diet Coke altogether and make Coca Cola a sugar-free product. His recommended tag line is Coca-Cola: The real thing without the calories.
His argument is that while consumers don’t want this yet, Coke can create social pressure on Pepsi by having the media paint Pepsi as the “bad guy,” as the media did to Coke back in the days of the Pepsi Challenge when Coke introduced the ill-fated New Coke.
Ries’ arguments are solid and, or course, risky. He suggests that Coke won’t do this because it is not what their customers want and in a customer-driven marketplace it would be suicide to take this action. However, he suggests it could/would work because the media would be all over Pepsi to do the same thing.
I find two points of contention with his premise. Firstly, the goal of Marketing is to figure out where the customer is going to be “tomorrow” and be ready for them when they arrive. Consumers are not stagnant and “customer is king” thinking does not have to relegate you to today-only thinking.
Secondly, and in alignment with the prior statement, Coke has a metric that allows them to see how consumers are progressing. Not only can they watch sales of Diet Coke vs Coke which is the closest proxy to a sugar-free Coke there is, but Coke sells countless other beverages and they can gain huge insights into changing consumer behaviors.
However, I do agree with Ries that waiting for the consumer to shift will be too late for Coke. At some point they need to lead, which is what #1 is supposed to do.