Another One? Marketing: Pepsi wants everyone but particularly men to try its new, no-diet-taste diet soft drink. To make sure that happens, it's making it real easy to get a free sample.

October 17, 1998|By Kevin Cowherd | Kevin Cowherd,SUN STAFF

It's here. Say the name to yourself: Pepsi One. Again: Pepsi One. One more time, with feeling: Pepsi One. Getting on your nerves, right? Well, Mr. and Ms. Consumer, you ain't seen nothing yet.

Starting today, there is no place in this country short of an underground nuclear test facility where you can escape the promotional campaign for Pepsi One.

You'll hear Pepsi One radio jingles. You'll see Pepsi One TV commercials starring ultra-hip Cuba Gooding Jr. You'll see Pepsi One magazine ads and Pepsi One "point of sale" displays in the soft drink aisle of your favorite supermarket. They'll practically be forcing it down your throat with a funnel at convenience stores, malls and college campuses.

You may go out of your mind because of Pepsi One.

At the very least, you will be haunted by these burning questions: Am I a Pepsi One person?

And, um, exactly what is Pepsi One?

What it is is Pepsi's biggest product launch ever. The concept: a diet cola that doesn't taste diet cola-ish. An army of grim industry scientists in white lab coats have been rattling beakers for decades in the hope of developing such a soft drink; now Pepsi says it's done it with its new one-calorie drink.

"This is a breakthrough taste experience in low-calorie colas," says Pepsi-Cola director of marketing Steve Fund, with typical corporate understatement.

As for Pepsi One's target market, Fund says the new drink "has very broad appeal. It's designed to satisfy those people who view diet colas as a compromise.

"It particularly connects with young consumers and males. It has the taste they're looking for."

Translation: Dude, if you've been slamming back four or five Cokes or Pepsis a day and now you're starting to get a gut like Fred Flintstone, Pepsi One may be for you.

The flacks at Pepsi say there are about 35 million diet soft-drink consumers in this country. But that number has been steadily diminishing: eight years ago, 30 percent of all soft drink sales were diet drinks, now that figure is 23 percent.

Traditionally, men have not taken to diet sodas; the term "diet," in fact, has about the same appeal for men as a "prostate exam."

Nevertheless, Pepsi One is going after men in their 20s and 30s with a vengeance.

Manly colors

The cans themselves feature a macho silver and black color scheme, which just happens to be the same one used by the Oakland Raiders football team and the Los Angeles Kings hockey team, among others.

Next to Pepsi's famous globe logo, the word ONE appears in big, blocky vertical lettering.

"It's very bold and powerful," Fund says of the can's design. "It's masculine, but not to the exclusion of females."

Oh, no, God forbid. Because in the $52 billion soft-drink industry, exclusion is a dirty word, maybe the dirtiest word you can utter.

In the corporate offices of Pepsi, Coke and every other soft drink maker, executives go around humming "It's a Small World After All" and looking for ways to attract an ever-expanding base of consumers.

If they thought they could make money on a cola for octogenarians, you'd see cans of something called "Hey, You're 80!" on supermarket shelves within weeks.

Pepsi One's secret -- if that's the word -- is that it's the first diet cola in this country to use the sugar substitute acesulfame potassium, known familiarly as Ace-K.

Ace-K was only recently approved by the Food and Drug Administration, and is said to be 200 times sweeter than sugar.

In combination with aspartame, Ace-K is said to produce a taste that is sweeter -- and less artificial -- than any other diet cola on the market.

Think back to the horrible, synthetic aftertaste of Tab. No wonder millions of American men preferred drinking regular cola and shopping in the "husky" section of clothing stores.

Corporate enthusiasm

In any event, Pepsi officials are wildly enthusiastic about their new product, which becomes clear during a phone call to corporate headquarters in Purchase, N.Y.

"We have a winner on our hands!" spokesman Jon Harris fairly shouts.

Then he tells you about an extensive home-use test in June and July, when Pepsi One was made available to thousands of consumers.

"Seventy percent said they loved the product and would be willing to buy it, and that's double what we like to see in these tests," said Harris. "Normally, if you get 35 percent, you're ecstatic."

Only time will tell if Pepsi One is a winner in the cola wars. The history of new product launches -- and diet colas in particular -- is littered with failures. Crystal Pepsi, launched in 1992, comes immediately to mind.

That infamous clear-cola drink also was introduced with much fanfare. But consumers seemed turned off immediately, and pretty soon you couldn't give the stuff away in a soup kitchen.

Not long after that, Crystal Pepsi quietly disappeared from supermarket shelves, and more than a few Pepsi executives contemplated a leap from the roof of their office building.

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