Reversing The Diet Soda Stigma

By Daniel Teng
Agency: TBWA\Chiat\Day Los Angeles
Client: Pepsi Max
Category: 2009

REVERSING THE DIET SODA STIGMA By manning up to face the true source of tension in the category, Planning provided a crucial shift for Pepsi Max: from selling ‘taste’ to selling ‘masculinity.’ This repositioning evolved what was originally a small print assignment into a full-fledged campaign capable of challenging a 50 year-old diet soda stigma.

BACKGROUND: A shunned product There are certain things in life most men can’t stand. Figure skating, small noisy dogs and, the topic of this paper, diet sodas. The issue with diet sodas, we believed, was a cultural one; not about taste, or color, or price, but simply about manhood. Through decades of female focused communications, the category perpetuated the belief that diet sodas were inherently ‘feminine,’ more akin to nail polish and make-up than beverage.

In 2008, tucked away in the overall Pepsi brand budget was a relatively small assignment for Pepsi’s newest zero calorie cola, Pepsi Max - a 7 page print insertion in the April issue of Maxim, pre-purchased by the client with hopes of engaging the male market with a diet message. We questioned, how do you open a diet soda dialog with an audience that for decades has shunned your product?

CATEGORY: Taste and energy not the answer

Some knowledge we quickly gathered: Taste and Energy were out. * ‘Taste’ was a territory occupied by Coke. Their newest diet cola offering, Coke Zero, touted itself plainly as ‘the diet cola that stole real Coke taste.’ • And we couldn’t talk about ‘energy’ either. Two years prior, Pepsi Max initially masqueraded as an energy drink to differentiate itself from Coke Zero. But with mere trace amounts of caffeine and ginseng (vs the real energy boost you get from drinks like Red Bull), it was a second-class soda in an energy category it never belonged in.

It was a flawed first launch our job needed to correct. All with a Maxim print budget.

CULTURE: ‘Manning up’ to the real problem

We needed to understand the bigger diet soda picture. There was tension in the category that no brand had ever talked about – an underlying cultural dynamic that made attributes like ‘taste’ and ‘energy’ trivial.

The true barrier any male-targeted diet soda brand would have to overcome was that diet soda was viewed as inherently ‘female.’ It’s why guys, even those with bulging waistlines who needed the product most, passionately refused diet sodas. And why some, out of embarrassment, wouldn’t even drink diet for free (we learned when we offered to buy some in lunch time interviews).

Planning’s first contribution to the creative process was attacking the real issue head on: Shame, not taste, prevented men from drinking diet soda.

By ‘manning up’ to this truth, Pepsi Max had a clear villain it could stand up against - the Diet Soda Stigma. Our task now was to reset this entrenched male mindset. If condemnation was the true diet barrier, we needed to make Pepsi Max socially acceptable within male circles.

PRODUCT: Conquering the Stigma

The next thing Planning interrogated was the product. We asked ourselves, what could Pepsi Max offer in helping to overcome this Diet Soda Stigma?

Planning hypothesized, the can wasn’t black for aesthetic reasons, it was black because it hinted at a darker, rebellious and, possibly, evil side to the product (like scorpion venom - at least that’s how the creative team eventually interpreted planning’s hypothesis). And it’s name, Max, wasn’t an homage to its previous energy positioning, but connoted an aggressive male tone (not just ‘regular guy’ aggressive -- you might say, ‘Viking warrior’ aggressive).

Planning then created a visual ‘mood board’ and pushed these thoughts further: what if Pepsi Max wasn’t just designed for men, but instead, it’s masculine characteristics made the soda itself male?

This gender based positioning provided the crucial planning shift in how we’d think, talk and ultimately advertise Pepsi Max: We weren’t selling taste. We were selling masculinity.

This gender filter armed us with a new way to de-position the category. Diet Coke and Diet Pepsi were feminine, Coke and Coke Zero were neutral, and Pepsi Max was outright manly.

AUDIENCE TRUTH: Masculinity is more frail than you think

Despite what’s shown in Hollywood, we surmised, masculinity is fragile.

Modern male confidence is gained through the approval of other men. But it’s just as easily stripped away by deviating from the norm. We found, infractions against the male code, such as singing, shopping or drinking diet soda, risked ridicule and potential excommunication from the group.

Knowing this cultural understanding of our target, the tone of the advertising became crucial. Stereotyping would have a necessary purpose - helping us infiltrate our audience’s culture. To get the surprisingly sensitive male to listen, Max’s communications needed to be familiar, comforting and encouraging to their masculinity.

Marching orders for the campaign were set: Face up to the problem head on. Our product lets us sell masculinity * Make it easy for our audience to see themselves in our communication – make men feel like men.

Pepsi Max needed to attack the diet soda stigma head-on and interject itself directly into male culture, depicting men in their familiar male troupe, assimilating their humor, vernacular and self-image.

CAMPAIGN: Pepsi Max, The First Diet Cola for Men

One print ad alone wasn’t going to annihilate the diet soda stigma, so the creative team developed a full campaign they titled ‘Pepsi Max, The First Diet Cola for Men’ to confront the male code head on. Using the three strong pillars of manliness (pain resistance, boasting and bacon), it delivered both rational and social arguments, in a left-hook right-hook combination, to offset the diet soda stigma . The campaign touted benefits of the brand while simultaneously validating the audience’s manliness (ie. save the calories for something that matters, like bacon), making men forget diet soda was ever girly to begin with.

The ‘frail masculinity’ audience insight informed the tone and imagery of the campaign. The ‘Ingredients’ spot fell directly out of our product positioning, ‘the soda itself was manly.’ The crushed can, was designed specifically to reverse diet sodas as a badge of shame and instead portray Max as a badge of manly pride.

The client agreed the planning idea and creative execution was bigger than just a print ad, and ‘manned up’ themselves by opening up Super Bowl TV inventory and major city outdoor placements for the campaign.

RESULTS: The campaign succeeded on a number of levels: a.) Ignited a diet soda conversation among men. b.) Embraced within culture and celebrated by industry. In Super Bowl ad rankings Pepsi Max “I’m Good”: #4 by YouTube, #5 by WSJ, and 4/5 stars on the USA Today Admeter. Good Morning America provided an appropriate acid test (video enclosed) against the male target. The two male hosts practically fell out of their seat laughing when the spot was featured on the show, while the women hosts stared blankly. * The ‘I’m Good’ TV spot was short-listed at Cannes. c.) And most importantly, the campaign increased Pepsi Max brand awareness and purchase consideration.