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The Thirst is Real: Diet Coke’s Struggle to Attract Millennials

By Lindsay Cottman

Diet Coke is in the throes of an identity crisis. Faced with consistently declining sales, Coca-Cola announced the introduction of four new fruit flavors to maintain its position as the most popular sugar-free soft-drink in the country. Coke has slenderized its can, re-tooled its design, and spent two years testing the public’s palettes in search of the perfect fruity flavors.

The whole endeavor, from social media messaging to the La Croix-esque flavor line-up, feels a bit too calculated to be convincing. It’s clear that the company sees the millennial demographic as its path back to growth, but its approach ultimately misses the mark. Every brand in the Western world has pegged its hopes on the coveted millennial, yet they keep making the same mistake: stereotypical pandering over genuine outreach.

Coca-Cola has held top billing as the world’s most beloved soft-drink since the late nineteenth century. That’s the kind of staying power unique to only the most iconic brands — and its led to a narrative so woven into America’s cultural fabric that the brand has navigated every conceivable generational shift, from the flapper to the hippie to Gen X. Coke’s brand of Americana is as timeless as other national values, and equally malleable as to be relevant for each generation of kids who grow up with their ads and humming along to their jingles.

Despite emotional resonance that has withstood the test of time, Coke has tried this type of “in the moment” outreach before. Several versions of the beverage have graced grocery store shelves only to be abruptly discontinued. How many consumers recall obscure iterations like Coca-Cola C2 and Coca-Cola BlāK? The company has navigated its missteps nimbly—it’s almost like New Coke didn’t even happen—which may be why they’re so comfortable repeating them.

The issue with Diet Coke’s latest offering doesn’t lie solely in the product itself (though initial reviews of the new flavors have been tepid, at best). In fact, diehard fans can rest easy knowing that the original recipe remains unchanged. The company’s press materials indicate: “Diet Coke — the same crisp, iconic taste launched in 1982 O.G. Diet Coke — isn’t changing.” It has simply expanded its product line to include Diet Coke Ginger Lime, Diet Coke Zesty Blood Orange, Diet Coke Feisty Cherry, and Diet Coke Twisted Mango. Monikers like “zesty blood orange” and “feisty cherry” only scratch the surface of the diet soda’s millennial-baiting strategy.

Since the inception of the term “millennial,” marketers everywhere have fixated on this fickle generation, who range in age from young adults in their late teens to those in their early thirties. It’s obvious why this demographic has become a desirable target: millennials flex their spending muscles generously, dropping over $200 billion each year. In addition to their strong purchasing power, millennials are largely seen as loyal, brand-savvy buyers thirsty for curated, substantive content. They prize genuine connection over shallow outreach based solely on superficial selling points, and are increasingly spending time and money on experiences versus possessions. This shift from the material to the memorable has everything to do with identity and what it means to curate one through authentic experiences and the stories they spark.

When Coca-Cola commenced its courtship of the millennial market, it failed to factor the group’s collective disdain for cloying marketing attempts. This oversight harkens back to a similar blunder from previous generations: OK Soda, an early ‘90s Coke product that suffered from its over the top “alternative” agenda geared toward apathetic Gen Xers. Desperation to appear relevant isn’t a good look, no matter what demographic a company seeks to win over. Thirty seconds perusing Diet Coke’s recent tweets illustrates how out of touch the brand is with its target audience. Posts that read “same great flavor. new intsa-worthy can” and “literal thirst trap,” plus a website peppered with phrases like “FTW” and “extra,” make for a truly cringeworthy experience.

What makes this whole approach even more bewildering is that in the past, Coca-Cola has successfully capitalized on engaging the public by tugging at its heartstrings. Two years ago, as part of a major strategic shift, Coke swapped its “Open Happiness” tagline for the more emotionally profound “Taste the Feeling.” This seemingly innocuous change proved to resonate deeply with consumers, and the resulting ads quickly went viral. By emphasizing social ties like friendship and familial bonds, the brand was able to speak to the core of humans’ innate gravitation towards connecting with others.

Why Diet Coke is now straying from strategies that have proven fruitful in the past is unclear, but they would do well to re-adopt messaging that stems from a stable emotional core instead of the hackneyed ad copy it’s using now, which is sure to feel dated in a matter of mere months.

Diet Coke’s latest approach lacks a compelling, emotionally-driven narrative at its core. From early slogans like the 1905 tagline, “Coca-Cola Revives and Sustains,” to later ads like the iconic 1971 “Hilltop” commercial, Coke has sold kinship and connection among all people and above all else. The concept of happiness appeals to consumers of any age, gender, or race, and it is an ideal that easily translates across a diverse global population of Coke consumers. This focus on enjoyment and connection is missing in Diet Coke’s current campaign, and the brand’s entire voice gets lost in a sea of hashtags.

Brands must appeal to consumers on a deeply intuitive level if they want to win loyalty and longevity. The most resonant brands elicit an emotional response by tapping into nostalgia, joy, or some sense of interpersonal connection. By making the assumption that millennials either aren’t emotionally intelligent enough to connect on that deeper level, or that they simply can’t be bothered, Diet Coke is missing a huge opportunity. Millennials crave connection — all humans do; we are hardwired for it— and substituting substance for the immediacy of trending buzzwords will not convince consumers that a product’s worth buying, regardless of age.

When it comes to brand identity, authenticity is key. And over the years, Coca-Cola Co. has done a decent job of staying true to its roots by portraying itself as a classic yet contemporary brand that connects consumers from all walks of life. Diet Coke can’t be faulted simply for trying to appeal to a new, youthful audience. Businesses must evolve to survive, or die trying. But it’s the desperate tone of Diet Coke’s messaging and its failure to stay true to the brand’s core voice, coupled with a derivative product line void of originality, that make its overall campaign feel like an uninspired flop in-the-making. Perhaps they should have called it New Coke 2.0.

Lindsay Cottman is an associate at Woden. Whatever your storytelling needs may be, Woden can help. Read our extensive guide on how to craft your organization’s narrative, or send us an email at connect@wodenworks.com to discuss how we can help tell your story.