It’s projected as tough and bold. It’s all the true-blue Coca-Cola taste a college football-loving, NASCAR-crazed young man can handle without the calories its big brother offers. It’s Coke Zero – the can in black.
Then why on earth was this beverage packaged in softer, gentler-toned white cans and labels when it hit the markets in 2005? Coca-Cola didn’t become the world’s third-most valuable brand according to Forbes ($54.9 billion) by being resistant to change and innovation. The company faced the facts: Young men don’t particularly like diet soft drinks. Or, if they do, they only admit it in the privacy of support groups.
“That was a little off-balance,” said Sharon Byers, Senior Vice President for Sports and Marketing Entertainment at Coca-Cola North America, a 1987 Harbert College of Business finance graduate. “That’s why now you see a really strong, bold packaging with the primary color being black.”
Within six months, Coke Zero did an about-face and trashed the white cans and labels with black lettering in favor of black cans and labels with red lettering. It wouldn’t want to be confused with its silver-canned “diet” big sister. So far, so good. Coke Zero’s avoidance of the four-letter word, combined with its taste and packaging, enabled it to become the company’s 12th brand to reach $1 billion in global revenue. It is arguably the most successful “new” soft drink venture of the last decade.
“Coke Zero is all around sports and helping fans enjoy everything,” Byers said. “Diet Coke is all around fashion and music. That’s why we have Taylor Swift as our spokesperson.”
Notice the difference?
Byers’ career has landed her squarely in the exciting, carbonated world of branding products against one another. However, Byers insists that Coke Zero does not compete against Diet Coke.
“The essence of Coke Zero is that you can have the great taste of Coca-Cola with zero calories,” Byers said. “It’s as simple as that. What is Coke Zero compared to Diet Coke? The flavor palette is very different.
“But everyone loves Coke — our mothership, red-canned Coke,” she said. “That’s the beauty of our brands. With over 650 beverages in North America – of which 180 are no-and low-calorie – we truly have something for everyone. Each one of our brands has their own personality, their own DNA and their own core creative idea.
Coca-Cola’s willingness to make adjustments on the fly helped it turn Coke Zero into a success. The drink’s initial marketing tagline – “everybody chill” – wasn’t resonating with its core audience. As Coke Zero changed its stripes, it also adjusted its approach.
Coke Zero has evolved its list of strategic partnerships over the years and in 2013 made its debut as a sponsor of ESPN College GameDay. The Home Depot may be ESPN College Game Day’s title sponsor, but Byers has been responsible for Coke Zero’s strong presence on the show – particularly with the creation of Section Zero, a designated seating area with prolific Coke Zero signage that almost guarantees television face time for the football crazies.
“One thing that we wanted to do was to have Section Zero be the best seat in the house,” Byers said. “As you know, fans wait for hours to try to get as close as they can to the College Game Day talent. On Wednesday or Thursday of each week we would have something called a fan combine designed to build excitement for the weekend game and provide an opportunity to win access to Section Zero.”
In other words … tryouts. “We have to make sure that what we had in Section Zero was really interesting,” Byers added. “We also go through the crowd and if we have some really interesting – whether people are painted or what they are dressed up as – we’d pick them up too and put them into Section Zero.”
Body paint isn’t always a Section Zero prerequisite. Terry Saban, wife of Alabama head coach Nick Saban, joined the crazies before a game last fall, while former Auburn coach Pat Dye spent time with Tiger in Section Zero before the Nov. 30 Iron Bowl.
“Last year was our first year and it really helped us forage deeper into that passion point and deeper into the show’s audience – the guys who have a passion for college football. For us to figure out an organic way to represent Coke Zero, which we did through Section Zero, became part of the footprint and platform within the whole Game Day experience.
“The brand voice is to be the ultimate defender of guy enjoyment on the premise of not having to make any sacrifices. That’s why you’ll continue to see integrated campaigns like what we accomplished with College GameDay last fall anywhere there are universal `guy’ assets like NASCAR, and with the NCAA Final Four.”