Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Sierra Mist Ad Failed By Strategy

This month PepsiCo's Sierra Mist Natural debuted a new spot to promote the fact that it now uses real sugar to make the drink, not the more commonly used high fructose corn syrup. The change to the drink's formula provides a critical point of difference from the category leader Sprite, and will certainly appeal to the fast growing anti-high fructose syrup crowd. The bold new spot is executed very well. It's clear and simple and uses a direct comparison to Sprite, which it disregards as "fake" because of its unnatural, lab-created sweeteners and preservatives.

The ad is Sierra Mist Natural's second attempt at introducing the real sugar difference to soda consumers. In their first attempt last year, the key differentiating message was buried under pointless creative, like talking rocks and the senseless line "the soda nature would drink if nature drank soda." The new campaign fixes this and is much more clear.

However, there is still a problem with the campaign that mucks up its great message: the converted name Sierra Mist Natural. Initially, I was confused. I thought Sierra Mist Natural was a line extension and that "regular" Sierra Mist was still using the artificial ingredients. I thought to myself, "That will kill the core brand." It wasn't until doing research and reading its Wikipedia page that I realized that was the core brand now. PepsiCo has completely scrapped the original Sierra Mist — all except for the name, of course. They had to keep that. The problem with using this naming strategy is that Sierra Mist Natural is introducing a new product but with a name that maintains all the negative perceptions of the past product.

I'm sure the argument in the boardroom was that the Sierra Mist name has equity in it. Yet, through the years, the brand equity in the name has only amounted to one percent of the soft drink category. Such a strategy is even more stunning because PepsiCo clearly understands the power of a name. This very move to create a "real sugar" soft drink is a response to consumer backlash to a terrible name: high fructose corn syrup. Scientifically, it's exactly the same as sugar in every way. It just sounds terrible so consumers won't consume it. They knew that the "high fructose" name was holding their product back.

Furthermore, if you do a little digging after watching the ad, the naming strategy gets even cloudier. Sierra Mist Natural, obviously billed as a healthier alternative because of its ingredients, shares a name with Diet Sierra Mist, which contains the highly controversial ingredient aspartame. So what exactly is core to the Sierra Mist brand?

My guess is confusion. While the execution of the new ad is excellent, its effectiveness will be minimized because its strategy is off. It takes more than slapping the word natural on the end of name for consumers to believe it. It must be who you are and even who you have always been. That's why they needed a fresh start with a new brand name in order to gain significant share from Sprite and 7UP.

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