PepsiCo is going all in on its reformulation of Diet Pepsi to knock out aspartame. It’s even touting the change on its new cans, which read, “Now aspartame free.” And, appropriately for a Hail Mary attempt to reverse the brand’s 5.2 percent sales slide last year, Diet Pepsi is using its biggest stage, its National Football League sponsorship, to launch the reformulated soda.
“We want to be able to leverage one of our biggest partnerships with one of our biggest pieces of news,” Seth Kaufman, a North America senior vice president for PepsiCo, told Ad Age. So one ad running in stores and on digital channels shows an NFL football and bears a tagline describing Diet Pepsi as “Crisp, refreshing — now aspartame free.”
PepsiCo doesn’t have immediate plans to plug the new version in TV ads—a departure from the last time Diet Pepsi changed its formula, in 2013, when it blended acesulfame potassium, known as “Ace-K,” with aspartame, which had been in use since 1983. Sofia Vergara starred in its launch campaign, including its “Love Every Sip” commercial.
Fast forward to this week, with Pepsi now shipping the reformulated Diet Pepsi, sweetened with sucralose (aka Splenda) and Ace-K, in an ambitious bid to reverse dipping sales. Some pundits are calling it one of the biggest gambles in the beverage industry since Coca-Cola tried—and failed—with New Coke in 1985.
“It took us a lot of time, but we’ve nailed it,” Kaufman told the Wall Street Journal. The new version, he said, retains the “light, crisp, refreshing” taste of traditional Diet Pepsi but “is a bit smoother.” And fear not, “Classic” Diet Pepsi will still be available online.
In shades of the iconic Pepsi Challenge, the soda maker is planning “aggressive” sampling campaigns at stores across the US, according to the Wall Street Journal, except it won’t be doing taste tests against Coca-Cola.
PepsiCo and Coca-Cola haven’t been able to get American consumers comfortable with aspartame, even though the Food & Drug Administration repeatedly has stated there are no ill health effects. Diet Coke, which enjoys twice the market share of Diet Pepsi, have been down even more than those of Diet Pepsi.
But more than health concerns about aspartame could be at play: Americans increasingly seem tired of any additive in any product that isn’t “natural,” not just aspartame per se. The hope is there will be better consumer acceptance for sucralose, the artificial sweetener that is sold under the brand name Splenda by manufacturer Tate & Lyle and isn’t an all-natural sweetener (nor is Ace-K).
PepsiCo and other soft drink companies have had trouble working with another popular natural sweetener, stevia, because of its strong aftertaste. The one clear winner these days as concerns mount about artificial sweeteners appears to be “cane sugar,” which is increasingly seen in mainstream soft drinks as well as “artisanal” and “hand-crafted” brands.
So Diet Pepsi’s move could be big — in either direction.