I ordered my Diet A&W Cream Soda, and I quickly realized something was different. My “diet” soda was no longer diet. Instead, it had become “zero sugar.”
This week, I took my podcast Margins of Error in a thirst-quenching direction to try to solve this marketing mystery and see if I should actually be drinking any of this stuff.
I soon realized A&W wasn’t some aberration. It was part of a trend.
Just take a trip down your local grocery store aisle as I did, and you’ll find that diet soda is disappearing. Brands such as Canada Dry and Crush have replaced their diet sodas with “zero sugar,” while others such as Coca-Cola and Dr Pepper now have zero sugar options in addition to diet.
On top of that, Cantois told me that “diet is about lack, diet’s about restraint, diet’s about femininity in these negative, but also kind of painful ways.”
It turns out this isn’t a new problem for low-calorie soda makers. Low-calorie soda, also called “diet” or “zero sugar,” has been around for 70 years, and how to promote it has always been a tricky thing.
Do you lean full into the idea of a diet, or do you lean into the idea of being healthier by cutting sugar without losing taste?
There were once a slew of different low-calorie drinks — Diet Rite, Tab, Patio, Diet Pepsi and much later on, Diet Coke — in the early days, and they went with different marketing strategies.
Flash forward to the 2000s, when the business of low-calorie soda was looking pretty bleak at the beginning of the current century. Diet soda sales were slouching. Marketing ultimately comes down to what is working businesswise, and it was clearly time to move away from diet.
Welcome to the land of “zero sugar” sodas. Cantois argued that from a marketing perspective, “zero is empowered and full and a value add. It’s got zero sugar as a good thing instead of diet as this pursuit of nothingness.”
Coke Zero outsold Diet Pepsi last year, according to statistics from my colleague Danielle Wiener-Bronner, who covers the food sector for CNN Business. This made it the second most popular “low-calorie cola carbonate.”
As you might have guessed, Diet Coke is still in first place. Still, from 2019 to 2021, Diet Coke’s market share decreased by 3.3 percentage points, while Coke Zero’s increased by 3 percentage points.