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Better than the real thing? Coke's new 'life' plan

Coca-Cola Life is sweetened with sugar and stevia extract and has fewer calories than normal coke.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Dappled sunshine glints through the branches of a tree; drops of condensation catch the light; a woman stretches out her legs in overgrown grass. These are the images in a new commercial that will be in heavy rotation in Canada starting next week to promote the launch of Coca-Cola Life. It's a marketing strategy designed to appeal to the growing number of consumers who are gravitating toward more natural foods and beverages, and away from products such as soda.

While Coca-Cola Co. has a number of newer brands in its portfolio – including Vitaminwater and Core Power protein drinks – this is the first major launch of a new product under the central Coke brand in Canada in more than a decade. The last one was Coke Zero, which made its debut in 2005.

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The core marketing position of Coke Life, which comes in green cans and bottles with green labels, is that it is "natural." The company says that out of roughly 300 beverages it sells in Canada, more than 70 are reduced-calorie or no-calorie drinks. The Life brand is a bet that some consumers will be willing to accept a slightly higher calorie count in favour of ingredients they can pronounce: In a throwback, the product is sweetened with actual sugar, as well as stevia extract. Stevia, a herb native to Paraguay, has been its own marketing story in recent years, as more food producers are looking to swap out artificial colours and flavouring to keep up with consumers' changing tastes. Signs for Coke Life include a green leaf shape around the word "new."

"With Coca-Cola Life, we want to be sure they're aware that it is sweetened with natural sources," said Michael Samoszewski, vice-president of Coca-Cola Canada's sparkling beverage business. "There is a group of consumers who are looking for that. It is a growing base. It is something that we're marketing."

Coke Life was first launched in Argentina and Chile in 2013, and has since spread across other markets including further into South America, Europe, Britain and the United States.

Coca-Cola Canada declined to provide global sales numbers but reports suggest the new product is not taking off everywhere: After initial growth in the United States, sales declined in the last half of 2015, according to analysts. Since then, the company launched a "regional acceleration plan" that led to six weeks of national growth in the United States compared with the previous year, according to a spokesperson.

Following a strong start in Britain with £4.2-million ($7.2-million) in sales amid heavy advertising in its first month, according to reports, sales fell to about £1-million in a four-week period just a few months later. Coke's marketing director for Britain and Ireland, Bobby Brittain, told Marketing Week in July that Coke Life was never intended as "more than a niche" product.

Mr. Samoszewski says that is not the case in Canada, where he expects the product could grow to be only slightly smaller in sales than Coke Zero.

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The company is investing heavily in the marketing campaign, setting a goal of getting samples into the hands of one million Canadians in the first month after launch. The effort will include in-store sampling, as well as samples sent directly to some consumers' homes. It has produced 80,000 pieces of material including store displays, door hangers and temporary shelves to highlight the product. And the company is partnering with Vice and with to produce content that includes the product. Vice, for its part, is going to be creating videos with Canadian chefs who will share recipes "that pair perfectly with Coca-Cola Life."

"It's launched globally, but in Canada, not a lot of people know about it," Mr. Samoszewski said.

While Coke says the product is 50-per-cent lower in calories than "regular colas," it still has 25 grams of sugar and 100 calories in a 500-millilitre bottle, and 11 grams of sugar and 45 calories in a 222-ml "mini" can. As such, the strategy of promoting it as "natural" – a claim many might infer is healthier – has been criticized by some.

"In fact, a cola drink with a few less calories may be part of the problem rather than the answer to reducing our waistlines. People tend to consume greater quantities of foods they believe to be healthy, and seeing a food promoted as healthy can lead people to eat more calories," Sandra Jones, professor and director of the Centre for Health and Social Research at Australian Catholic University, wrote in an article in 2014.

In recent years, Coca-Cola Co. has attempted to address health concerns through its marketing, launching new ads and changing its labels to be clearer about the calorie counts of its beverages and its ingredients. In ads, it has tried to depict Coke as one choice in the balance between calorie intake and exercise. A campaign launched in 2013 addressed health concerns directly, and highlighted its investment in ParticipAction programs; another in 2014 used a stationary bike to show how consumers could earn a treat such as a Coke through exercise.

In its most recent earnings report in July, Coke reported sales of sparkling beverages declined by 1 per cent in North America, while still beverages such as Dasani and Vitaminwater grew by 3 per cent.

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"Consumers are more conscious of what they're putting in their bodies. We want to be part of that …" Mr. Samoszewski said. "It will be a huge launch for us."

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