Diet Pepsi Is Bringing Aspartame Back, Again

Dive Brief:

PepsiCo is adding aspartame back to its flagship Diet Pepsi product. The company pulled the controversial ingredient in 2015, but brought it back in limited quantities a year later after backlash from brand loyalists. The aspartame-free version will still be available, but only via e-commerce.

86a9114871b05a0fcfd77c3e07bf1362.jpg

Despite confusing research and health concerns about aspartame, Diet Coke never changed its aspartame-based recipe, which has given the drink a market advantage. In 2017, sales of Diet Pepsi's aspartame-free product dropped by 8%, while Diet Coke fell 2.5%, according to Beverage Digest.

Diet soda sales have experienced steep declines in the last 20 years as beverages have become more diversified and consumers more health-conscious. Coca-Cola and PepsiCo have jumped into new markets, including water and sports drinks, to expand their portfolios and drive growth.

Dive Insight:

Diet soda has been going through an identity crisis since reaching its $8.5 billion sales peak in 2009. Since then, consumers have not only craved more beverage varieties — teas, water, energy drinks — they've increasingly turned away from soda for health reasons. This rejection extends to diet soda as well, which has experienced a 20% drop in sales in the last 10 years. 

PepsiCo is turning to a familiar solution to reverse recent sales trends: aspartame. The move to bring back its original Diet Pepsi with aspartame is a complete 180 from just three years ago, when the controversial ingredient was removed from the ingredient list entirely.

Now, the original Diet Pepsi will be back in full effect. But confusion among consumers could be a challenge as the company shifts its marketing plan to focus on the original, aspartame-included formula and other core products.

Despite some controversial health claims about aspartame, Diet Coke kept the FDA-approved ingredient and has fared well by comparison.  

There's a reason "New Coke" turned out to be one of the biggest marketing failures of all time. Loyalists don’t much like change. And soda will always have its loyalists, even as it is lined up against an increasingly diverse and healthy beverage market.

Still, PepsiCo's move illustrates the soda industry's search for a silver bullet. But the answer may be multiple bullets. Coke and Pepsi are now also in the growing water, sports drinks and iced coffee businesses, which could help offset soda declines.

Both companies are also experimenting with flavor innovations, which is a growing demand among consumers, especially the coveted millennial demographic. Diet Coke is remedying its shrinking core market with new products, including four new flavors of Diet Coke — cherry and blood orange among them. Diet Pepsi is also adding new flavor profiles, including vanilla and lime.

As PepsiCo looks to pour marketing dollars behind its core products, its best strategy after these dizzying past three years will be consistency.