Battle of mid-calorie sodas begins, but “taste cloud” may hang over them.

PepsiTrueOK, as reported last week in a nice piece in the Huffington Post Online, here comes Pepsico with their cokelifemid-calorie soda, new Pepsi True. This is Pepsi’s answer to Coca Cola Life, the Atlanta soda juggernaut’s mid-calorie entry reported on, somewhat derisively, here on SME Brand Leverage blog, September 5.

Guess the only place where you can buy Pepsi True?

Now, while Coke is apparently going to market and sell Life pretty much in line with traditional soft drink retailing, i.e. distribution in grocery and convenience stores; media advertising, promotion and social media support, Pepsi True is using a very different and more limited distribution attack, exclusively selling on Amazon ONLY. Maybe they’ll cross promote with diet books.

Whether this reflects Pepsi’s more conservative expectations for their mid-calorie player, or just a phased “wait and see” approach before they expand to broader distribution and availability, we’ll see.

Here’s where it gets a little confusing.

Both True and Life are sweetened with a blend of sugar and stevia, a sugar substitute derived from plants that has essentially no calories (more on “stevia” below). Pepsi True contains 60 calories in a little slight of hand using a 7 1/2  ounce can; Coca Cola Life at least stands up straight and tall in its “big boy” pants in a traditional, full size 11.2 ounce can, and clocks in at 89 calories. In “normal” size (11.2 ounces) cans, they would both have nearly equal calories. So I guess Pepsi wins the calorie lightweight title using some packaging sleight of hand, but gee, what if you’re still thirsty and need to drink two of them?

(Just for the record and comparison, full size can of regular Coke has around 140 calories.)

This dive off the we-can-make-our-mid-calorie-soda-lower-than-yours board comes less than a week after Pepsi joined Coca Cola in promising to cut calories in its beverages by 20 percent, buckling under the “Fight Obesity” war cries of the world’s Food Nazis.

cokelife_canonlyPEPSI-TRUE-caseSo, is everything going to be oh-so-tasty in Mid-Calorie Land? Again, we’ll see.

This is where this “experiment” in skinny living and soda drinking is going to get interesting.

The beverage companies are getting desperate to offset rather meaningful declines in their diet soda volumes, probably a partial result of the “diet” products having having an undesirable aftertaste. As the HuffPo article lays out, now the soda giants are counting on stevia to revitalize their “lower” calories products.

But there’s a potential problem with stevia: formulas using it are sometimes perceived as having a bitter, sometimes licorice-esque aftertaste that’s unattractive to some drinkers. Earlier this year, Coca Cola’s Vitaminwater reformulated using stevia in its formula. The customer blowback was pretty rough and caused Coca Cola to retreat and return to the original formula within only one month of the change.

So, yes, we’ll see how these new “stevia” based reformulations are accepted. Companies can make mistakes. Remember “New Coke”? How bout “Pepsi Next”?

Original Pepsi  and Coca Cola drinkers may scrunch up their noses when they taste Pepsi True and Coca Cola Life. sour face

Of course they may like the new mid-calorie sodas “enough,” that they just grin and bear it….

and keep trying to squeeze into those pants that used to fit.

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McDonalds starts the 18 month branding “road back.”

Md'sMcDonald’s business these last six months has been rather disappointing. It results from a combination of increased, more attractive competitors and a menu that is at odds with a growing segment of fast food consumers who want to eat fast and inexpensively, but somewhat nutritionally sensibly, as well.

To address this business problem AND opportunity, the chain is setting aside the next 18 months as a period not only to develop the normal lineup of new menu items but also to rebrand itself. McDonald’s knows it needs to be an appealing place to eat, not just a cheap one.

McDonald’s says their repositioning won’t necessarily involve the typical hallmarks of a rebrand, such as a new logo or total design overhaul, but will instead focus on reworking the basics: better value, service, marketing, and menu.

And of course, from our perspective here at SME Brand Leverage, they will need to pay close attention to the brand’s current emotional strengths, as well as making sure they fit against the altered consumer marketing environment they are facing.

The goal is to become a “more trusted and respected brand,” said Don Thompson, McDonald’s chief executive. The McDonald’s brand has taken some hits over the recent years:nutritional concerns, lack of blockbuster product launches, and employee issues, mainly concerning wage issues. Informally, it seems to have gone a little “stale,” and not the most attractive option for consumers when picking a fast food destination. According to Infegy, a company that analyzes social media, 38 percent of online conversations about McDonald’s over the past year have been negative.

To create a dining experience “customers will feel good about,” as Thompson puts it, may be a lengthy and somewhat challenging process, but if any brand can return itself to the top of the competitive heap, it’s the team from Oak Brook, Illinois (McD’s corporate headquarters).

Let’s see where they stand in January, 2016.



GAP Gets It….Burger King Doesn’t

Image: GapBurger King Announces Safety Move in Play Areas






Couple of interesting pieces of “brand” news yesterday caught my eye. One was for the GAP retailer and reported not so much a change in branding, but actually a testament to brand continuity (although with continual appropriate contemporary updating). The other was about fast-fooder Burger King, changing to a new advertising slogan, one that is intended to make “a connection with a person’s greater lifestyle”. Here’s my take on both.

GAP stays close to its iconic history.

GAP understands it’s always had a connection with its customers. Since 1969, the brand has rallied around fun, joyfulness, optimism and inclusivity. And now the nearly 50 year old brand has set its sights on keeping itself relevant to its original franchise customers who are obviously much older now, as well as the continually new prospects teen age and younger.

But while working hard to build on its iconic history with younger customers, using very modern tactics like social media and emotion-generating music, GAP didn’t find a need to dramatically reinvent the brand.

Your long-term purpose and the tone of your brand and your belief system should never change, but the way you express it can change time and time again,” says GAP Chief Marketing Officer, Seth Farbman.

Burger King shifts dramatically to “lifestyle.

After 40-years of the advertising slogan “Have It Your Way,” Burger King is scrapping it in favor of the more personal “Be Your Way.” The company says the new slogan is intended to remind people that “they can and should live how they want anytime. It’s ok to not be perfect … Self-expression is most important and it’s our differences that make us individuals instead of robots.”

Whoa, whoa whoa Trigger! Now I’m as much into keeping things fresh, updated and relevant to the branding environment one markets within, but let’s not forget….we’re selling burgers here, not dispensing or enabling pop self-psychiatric therapy.

It just keeps getting better. Fernando Machado, Burger King’s senior vice president of global brand management (who just joined the company in March), noted in an interview that “Have It Your Way” focuses on only the transaction — the ability to customize a burger. By contrast, he said “Be Your Way” is about making a connection with a person’s greater lifestyle. Hmmmm. “We want to evolve from just being the functional side of things to having a much stronger emotional appeal,” Machado said.,

Well, we’ll see about that Fernando. Seems to this observer (who has certainly downed triple digit numbers of BK burgers) that it’s all about my food purchase choices and the taste, quantity and consuming environment. Together they should generate some sort of emotional end-benefit, sure; but  connecting with my “greater lifestyle” ? Like I said: we’ll see.








Starbucks CEO Pulls a Smart One On Guns — Please, “No”, But If You Do, It’s “OK”

The CEO of Starbucks, Howard Schultz, pulled a pretty clever maneuver last week. He instituted a policy saying that legally permitted guns would be allowed in his outlets, but they really weren’t welcome. Here’s a pretty good piece on his Open Letter and comments from the Wall Street Journal.

Starbucks would rather you didn't bring your guns, but if you do it's OK.

Now this is why this is so clever as a marketing maneuver: Starbucks clientele is overwhelmingly Liberal in their political persuasion, regardless of their postal code. I would peg it at over 70% self-identifying that way, and accordingly supporting strong restrictions, if not outright ownership bans.

However , that leaves, maybe 30% who, even if they don’t own a gun, are more likely Conservatives in their political philosophy and feel pretty strongly that ownership and right-to-carry is protected somewhere in the U.S Constitution’s 2nd Amendment.And, the inconvenient truth is that open-carry of handguns is permitted in 44 or the 50 United States.

Soooo, there’s a bit of a problem for Howard.

Does Starbucks try to prohibit guns being carried openly in their outlets by a not inconsequential number of their regular customers (not to mention at the same time putting Starbucks unarmed baristas in the frontline position of enforcing something seen as legal by gun-toting, latte-seeking individuals standing at the counter with their .44 magnums)?

Or do they more or less cave to their dominant customer audience, the same crew who, in the main, believe global warming is the most horrific threat facing mankind, that marijuana should be legal and that all cars should only run on wind or solar. (OK, I kinda jumped the shark on that last description, but you get the picture.)

Well, that’s why Starbucks took the Wisdom of Solomon route. In Schultz’s words, the policy effectively “give(s) responsible gun owners the chance to respect our request,”but doesn’t ban or prohibit them.

So there you have it! Starbucks is on the record as not encouraging “gunslingers” to bring weapons into their stores, BUT … firmly, well, sorta firmly as recognizing the Constitutionally-protected customers’ right to do so.

Let the butterscotch lattes and cinnamon cappuccinos roll!

My favorite coffee shop (and coffee shop brand) in Bangkok…Mascotte The Coffee Corner

I don’t hang out in Starbucks or any other Bangkok cooffee shops, as I really don’t think their coffee and general “branding ambience”  is worth the high altitude prices they ask for their cups.

Mascotte The Coffee Corner

Mascotte The Coffee Corner

There is one (and, yes, there is only ONE at this time) that can get me to part with my hard earned baht for a latte or cappuccino, and that is Mascotte The Coffee Corner. The owner, a Dutchman named Martien Vlemmix, has truly created a unique little oasis of Dutch “coffeeness” with a retro jazz theme right here in Southeast Asia on Charoennakorn Road Soi 15/1 . Throw in an electic menu of breakfast through dinner Dutch and Thai specialties, background jazz music and vocals from the 30’s up to Dave Brubeck in the 60’s all reinforced with floor to ceiling photos of jazz greats  and you have a truly unique “branding ambience.” And that makes me for one, willing to stop, order and savor in a place that has gone over and above making itself different and special. My-Dutch-Grandmother CHOCOh, and did I mention my most favorite thing about the “Corner” aside from the creativeness and effort that has gone into making it more than just a “coffee shop?” It’s their My Dutch Grandmother’s brand hot chocolate, prepared according to what Martien swears is his grandmother’s original recipe that he enjoyed as a boy growing up in Holland. He says it’s legit, but that doesn’t matter to me. It’s delicious, so when I’ve maxed out on his lattes, I can shift easily to a hot chocolate and enjoy the sounds, the faces on the walls, great food if I’m hungry and feel that I’m having a special experience….not just a Starbucks corporate moment. It’s different. It’s special. You should try it….Mascotte The Coffee Corner.