15 years ago, Sergio Zyman, a consultant with the Coca-Cola Co., who later became one of the US based beverage maker's most successful chief marketing officers, discovered something about the clear, lemon-lime soft drink, Sprite.
He found out that Sprite's consumers didn't actually care about the taste of the product. They drank Sprite because of its unconventionality - an unconventionality that was cheeky in the communication, too.
Out went the company's - and Zyman's - reasoning that Sprite be positioned as the 'lemony' alternative to its colas. In came an infusion of attitude that has stayed with Sprite. The flavour shifted from the product itself to its communication. Its new ads moved away from 'I Like the Sprite in You' to 'Image is Nothing. Thirst is Everything. Obey Your Thirst' and a host of commercials that poked fun at ads in almost every category - from detergents to sneakers.
The result? Sprite sales zoomed and urban teens took to it like fish to water. Three years after the switch, Sprite, which was one of Coca-Cola's laggard brands, became the fourth largest selling soft drink in the US.
What was good for the US market was good enough for India, too. When Sprite came to India, it stuck to the formula unwaveringly. And it paid off. Launched in 1999, Sprite has become the third largest selling soft drink in India after Thums Up and Pepsi. Coca-Cola found itself in a strange situation in India - of its top three sellers, flagship brand Coke was No. 3. The only other country where Coca-Cola faced this peculiarity was Peru, where Coke played second fiddle to a locally developed brand that it owned, Inca Cola.
The clear strategy
Coca-Cola India is in a happy state riding on Thums Up and Sprite. Overall, its volume sales, both in the sparkling and still beverages categories, grew by 14 per cent last year. What gives? "Much as I would like to say it is entirely because of the advertising that Sprite succeeded," laughs Titus Upputuru, senior creative director, Ogilvy India, "the product itself is good and the best thing is that it has been consistent in its attitude. Sometimes, there are people who change at the brand level or the agency level. And they start reinventing brands. Sprite had a strong, consistent communication." Other factors like distribution and packaging, too, played their roles.
According to Kini, it is difficult to separate the preference for the segment from the preference for the brand. Sprite popularised the clear lime segment and, worldwide, the clear lime segment is the largest in the carbonated drinks category. "In India, nobody had attacked or approached it in the right way with the right product," says Kini. Sprite, helped by consistent communication of the core idea with refreshing execution year after year, did that.
In India, too, Sprite's ads poked fun at other categories. One of the earliest ones was on celebrity endorsements. Remember Lisa Ray bathing in Sprite so that her skin could keep glowing? 'Paisa do to log kuch bhi bol daalte hain' went the Sprite commercial. But the "attacks" were, more often than not, directed at Pepsi.
A recent TVC for Sprite lampooned the Youngistaan TV commercial from Pepsi. In the Sprite commercial, a Shah Rukh Khan clone turns away his sister's boyfriend, but throws open the door when a neighbour walks in and introduces himself. Was it necessary to always take a dig at Pepsi?
According to Upputuru, most of Sprite's ads are thematic. The drink's communication basically punctures pretentiousness. Ask him about the Youngistaan spoof, and he says: "In India, when you visit homes, you actually ring the bell and you are invited in properly." There is no need for subterfuge like climbing walls or windows. "Moreover," he adds, "the ads are all in good spirit. It brings in a spirit of lightheartedness. After all, it is soft drinks. It is about fizz, it is about enjoyment. Everyone enjoys having fun on the side."
Sprite's approach was clear. It targeted the youth - mainly teens - by arguing that other beverages were focused on trivial and distractive matters of image and that those who weren't fooled by this sort of "trickery" should drink Sprite as a matter of authenticity. No marketing gimmicks, no celebrities - barring Sania Mirza two years ago, and there too, Sprite used the player's attitude - and hardly any over-hyped selling were the hallmarks of Sprite's highly effective campaign.
Telling it like it is
Refreshingly honest and slightly irreverent - 'Seedhi Baat, No Bakwas' has been Sprite's no-nonsense line. And it has been playing the line in different ways, tones and styles changing the language accordingly. Honesty, according to Sprite, is an old policy that works. Globally, too, Sprite has focused on honesty in varying degrees. In Latin America, for instance, the honesty is more brutal. In other countries, it is subliminal.
In India, according to the agency, most youth brands are getting into "smartness" territory because they think the youth want to be smart. "Today, the youth want to be matter of fact. They say what they believe and don't hide behind pretences. They have been like this traditionally, but earlier they were more rebellious. Now the trend is: 'I don't have to prove a point and I'm not doing this to prove a point to my dad or peers. I'm being myself.' In Sprite's case, the transparency comes from the brand itself," he explains. "There is a newfound attitude of being comfortable in one's identity among the youth of today."
Take the new Sprite TV commercial. It has a boy dating two girls at the same time. After telling the first girl that "doosri girlfriend wait kar rahi hogi", he tells the second girl that he got delayed because of a date with Rhea. Neither of them believes him.
"The ideas come from all over," says Upputuru, "but we make a conscious effort to find out what works for the brand." Both client and agency meet the young audience, talk to them and brainstorm in coffee houses, among other places. According to the agency, what helped tremendously was that it shares a near-perfect partnership with the client.
Surprisingly, considering its target audience, if there is one trick Sprite hasn't used fully, it is digital communication. There were a few SMS based campaigns. It also came up, in 2006, with Sprite-itude - an interactive zone on the Internet. Consumers could play tennis and do their own thing, which included creating a T-shirt slogan for Sania.
However, so far, there has been nothing like Sprite Yard (launched in China), a new mobile phone based, social networking site with downloadable content that was launched in June 2007. Teens got to redeem prizes and download mobisodes and ringtones by typing in codes printed on Sprite bottle caps. Though Sprite hasn't milked the digital potential yet, it is seriously working on it this year.
Cracking the digital arena - where irreverence and attitude bring even better results - could give Sprite the boost to stay ahead of the competition.