Saturday, Dec 16, 2017
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Kirk Baird

CULTURE SHOCK

Rebranded Coke Zero doesn't live up to hype

  • Coke-Zero-Makeover

    A six-pack of bottled Coca-Cola Zero Sugar. It's newer, but is it better? The Blade put it to the test.

    COCA-COLA

  • n6baird

    Baird

Coke telling us it has a new and improved replacement cola is like a grounded teenager frantically imploring, "This time I won't wreck the car! I swear!"

History says you have every right and reason to be suspicious.

And yet, more than 30 years after the cautionary tale that was New Coke — the Pepsi-like replacement for the original Coke that no one asked for or wanted, but the corporation's deep-thinkers insisted we needed and would compliantly consume — Coca-Cola has reinvented another of its soft drinks.

In case you've missed the company's TV and radio commercials announcements as well as local billboards, Coke Zero is now Coke Zero Sugar. Other than the added word "Sugar" in Coke Zero Sugar's name, there's little to differentiate between the diet colas. The packing is similar in its dominant use of black, with more red on the can. 

Even the ingredients are the same — at least as listed on the back of each can.

But as the company's well-paid marketing experts say via Coca-Cola's website, it's not the ingredients we know about that matters.

"The upgraded Coke Zero is called Coke Zero Sugar, and it’s made with an even better-tasting recipe that delivers real Coca-Cola taste with zero sugar and zero calories."

Like wearing a toupee or providing generic Oreos for a picnic, the Coke recipe is a restricted secret known to only a few.

And after successful launches of Coke Zero Sugar overseas, Coca-Cola is certain Americans will love the Coke Zero replacement as well.

"We’re confident Coke Zero Sugar is our best-tasting zero-sugar Coca-Cola® yet. And we can’t wait for you to try it!" What they don't tell you is that we don't have a choice since Coke Zero is no longer for sale.

Nevertheless, as an avid fan of the late, great Coke Zero, I opted to take Coke up on their challenge.

And not just me. I enlisted the help of 19 other co-workers in a blind taste test between Coke Zero and Coke Zero Sugar. I was inspired by the Take the Pepsi Challenge campaign in the '70s, in which people sampled unmarked cups of Coke and Pepsi and picked their favorites. Such is my loyalty to Coke, I stood in a long line at a county fair in Southern California circa the summer of '77 to take the challenge. Much to the irritation of the man administering the Pepsi Challenge, I chose Coke.

And much to the irritation of Coke, 14 of the 20 samplers — 70 percent — preferred Coke Zero to Coke Zero Sugar. 

"It has a little more flavor" or fizz or “there’s less aftertaste” were many of the pro-comments about Coke Zero.

There was also this ringing rebuke of both diet colas: "I can't tell a difference ... [Coke Zero is] not the worst pop I've had, but it's pretty bad."

As for my blind taste test, I initially found the no-sugar, no-calorie colas similar, though I ultimately preferred the "more acidic" bite of Coke Zero rather than the more pronounced sugary taste of Coke Zero Sugar: "It was more like Pepsi in that it's just a tad sweeter."

Even now, as I write this column, my opinion hasn't changed, as I alternate sips between a can of Coke Zero and a can of Coke Zero Sugar.

But what I think probably doesn't mean much to Coca-Cola.

"They're trying to establish this brand into every nook and cranny and to everyone," said Lori Mitchell Dixon, president of Great Lakes Marketing Research based in Toledo. Her firm has helped major companies test new products for more than half a century.

"Everybody wants to be an individual, everybody wants exactly what they want. But we also have an affinity for the brand [of Coke]. My assumption is that Coke is ... just trying to find the next new thing, and that's easier to do with an existing brand than to build a new brand."

Or, as we learned, a New Coke.

Contact Kirk Baird at: kbaird@theblade.com or 419-724-6734.

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