The Coke vs. Pepsi “cola wars” was one of the 20th century’s greatest marketing campaigns, or scams, depending on your point of view. Both companies have become massive food and beverage giants while somehow perpetrating the myth that there is actually a taste difference between their flagship products (though insisting you can taste the difference between Coke and Pepsi is like saying you can taste the difference between a Whopper and Big Mac). But fast forward to the 21st century; while these companies are still strong, sales of fizzy drinks are flat. Some, such as diet soda products, are in decline or losing market share. Can stevia-based drinks reinvigorate the soft drinks industry?
The reasons Coca-Cola and PepsiCo’s sales of their most venerated products have struggled are all over the map. Obesity rates and their connections to sugary drinks are one. Health concerns over aspartame, sucralose, and years before, sodium saccharine are another. In a society where many younger consumers want to serve the latest and coolest in their mason jars, cola drinks don’t exactly cut it. There is also much more competition than there was a decade ago. Walk into a convenience store and the variety and colors of cans and bottles demonstrate Coca-Cola and PepsiCo's competition. The soda giants even own many of these newer brands -- any recent growth they've seen has come from new products, not sales of their older brands. Now two new products boasting calorie-free stevia root, Coca-Cola Life and Pepsi True, are set to hit shelves in the United States, and both companies hope they can reverse the slow but notable long term downtown in soft drink sales.
The first thing you notice about these products, of course, is the packaging. Both companies claim the green signifies the stevia leaf, but come on, marketers, the implicit message is that somehow these products are more “green” or “sustainable.” And perhaps they are. Both use a combination of sugar and stevia to limit the number of calories per serving to 60—a step up from high-fructose syrup, which many doctors and health experts say has contributed to Americans’ expanding waistlines the past four decades. The portions are smaller, too, with Coca-Cola life served in eight ounce bottles and Pepsi True for now in 7.5 ounce cans. But the big question is whether these beverages can succeed in the long term after their initial hype. While advocates of stevia tout it as a natural product, many consumers have long complained about stevia’s bitter aftertaste. Some analysts, as quoted in Business Insider, predict these drinks will fail in the end.
Part of the challenge is finding that middle ground. Consumers who drink low- or zero-calorie beverages are resigned to some compromise in taste; those who insist their drinks are fully leaded will not budge. And as an article this summer in the Guardian explained, Pepsi’s and Coke’s new drinks still hold plenty of sugar: the Coca-Cola light sold in 11 ounce cans in the United Kingdom contained four teaspoons of a sugar. But at least these companies are taking a step to address portion control, whittling down the serving size closer to 6.5 ounces, the standard serving size for decades before both Pepsi and Coke turned away from that returnable glass bottle size in the 1970s.
For now Coca-Cola and PepsiCo are launching these new stevia-laden drinks in limited markets. Pepsi True is only available on Amazon.com, starting later this month. After Coke found success with Coca-Cola Life in Argentina and later Mexico, the company announced it can be found in some Fresh Markets in the U.S. South before a nationwide rollout.
It will be interesting to see how these products perform, as both beverage companies have been under pressure to release “healthier” foods and drinks . . . while insisting they are churning out nutritious products and contributing to healthier lifestyles. This is a strategic move analogous to McDonald choice to serve salads: Introduce a product that is benign compared to the current high-caloric options on the menu in hopes that it will quell mounting health criticism. Hopefully Big Soda will have better luck than the golden arches.
Leon Kaye has written for TriplePundit since 2010, and became its Executive Editor in 2018. He's based in Fresno, CA, from where he happily explores California’s stellar Central Coast and the national parks in the Sierra Nevadas. He's lived in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay, and has traveled to over 70 countries. He's an alum of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California.