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Top-Selling Soda Brands: Then Vs. Now

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A side-by-side comparison of the top 10 choices in 2000 and 2010.

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In 1989, Billy Joel famously wailed about the hostile state of affairs between beverage industry heavyweights Coke (KO) and Pepsi (PEP): "Rock and roller Cola Wars, I can't take it anymore!" Here we are, more than two decades later, with no hope of either camp waving the white flag. The battle for market share and brand loyalty hit a major milestone this week with the release of Beverage Digest's 2010 soft drink rankings.

For the first time in the carbonated contenders' shared history, Diet Coke overtook Pepsi for the number-two spot. The current choice of neither a new nor old generation, Pepsi's volume fell 4.8% and claimed a market share of 9.5% compared to Diet Coke's 9.9% and Coke's 17%. But while Coca-Cola can unquestionably claim victory in this latest battle -- and it's a big one -- the war is far from over.

Pepsi's popularity plunge, according to Beverage Digest's editor John Sicher, is a direct result of missed marketing opportunities. There was no Pepsi-sponsored Super Bowl halftime show last year featuring a $100,000 can of the beverage blinged-out in diamonds, sapphires and rubies. Instead, the company opted to bet the brand-awareness house on a far less gaudy but far more altruistic approach called the Refresh Project which gives away grants to social projects. While Sicher dubbed the civic charity program "worthy," he believes it didn't convey Pepsi's proven product attributes like taste, refreshment, music and good times.

Meanwhile, Coke wagered its advertising budget on sure things like commercials during high-visibility events including the Super Bowl, the Academy Awards, sponsorships with the NCAA tournament and American Idol. Having rejected the offer to be what Simon Cowell et al drank at the Idol judges' table, Pepsi has since learned its lesson and will be the sponsor of the surly talent host's X Factor this fall.

Pepsi isn't alone in its syrupy slump. Soft drink sales overall are down now for the sixth straight year with volume at 1996 levels. Last year's top performers were Diet Mountain Dew, owned by Pepsi, and Diet Dr Pepper, owned by Dr Pepper Snapple Group (DPS), which both experienced growth rates in excess of 5%. Logic would follow that the decline in traditional carbonated beverages is a product of a larger societal trend toward healthier living.

Not so, insists Sicher, who claims any backlash notion against sugary soda has been erroneously pushed by the media. Instead, he says, the sales dip is an intersection of the tremendous growth of bottled water in the early part of the decade combined with hikes in soda prices. But make no mistake: Bottled water has never outsold soft drinks -- which are and have always been, the best-selling beverage.

The soft drink landscape is changing, however, perhaps most notably in America's public schools. A landmark agreement between the Alliance for a Healthier Generation and the leading beverage companies -- the Coca-Cola Company, PepsiCo and Dr Pepper Snapple Group -- led to a widespread replacement of full-calorie soft drinks from schools with lower-calorie, smaller-portion beverages. All told, 88% of calories have been reduced in school beverages since 2004.

In addition, Michelle Obama has made nutrition a priority of her first lady duties with the "Let's Move" initiative. The beverage industry responded with a commitment to move calorie count information to the front of containers, vending machines and fountain machines.

Perhaps, someday, bottled water and healthier alternatives will usurp carbonated beverages in a stealth market takeover and we'll see the warring cola brands unite against their common enemy. Such a partnership would finally extinguish at least a few embers in Billy Joel's "fire" -- although likely ignite an entirely new sea of flames.

In the meantime, we're likely going to see continued record sales of these big brands. Scroll down for a side-by-side comparison of the top-selling sodas over the past 10 years.

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10. Fanta/Barq's Root Beer
Fanta in the top 10? Really? Does anyone even know what the logo looks like? Consumers may not be reaching for the Coca-Cola Company brand fruit-flavored beverage in the soda isle but, according to Sicher, they're likely buying it when ordering an orange drink at fast food restaurants like Burger King and McDonald's (MCD).

Originally sold exclusively in Europe, Fanta was born in Germany during the lead up to World War II when Allied Forces issued a trading ban of Coca-Cola against German bottlers. In order for Coca-Cola to preserve its assets during the war, its German plant concocted a new drink out of leftovers and sweetened it with saccharin. The name "Fanta" is the German word for fantasy or imagination

Also a Coca-Cola brand, Barq's root beer made the top 10 at the beginning of the millennium but has now been edged out all together. Founded by the Barq Brothers in New Orleans' French Quarter in the late 19th century, the sarsaparilla soda now brands itself as the root beer "with bite." To drive the point home, the beverage's mascot, "Barqy," a Jack Russell Terrier and Barq's root beer can composite ferociously chomps its jagged aluminum-can teeth. Interesting choice of dog breed since Jack Russells are known for their barks, not bites.
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9. Diet Dr Pepper/CF Diet Coke
Diet Dr. Pepper, unfortunately introduced as "Dietetic Dr Pepper" in 1965, grabbed ninth place in 2010 with a 5% sales bump after not even placing 10 years earlier. The company attributes its popularity spike to a reformulated recipe that contains aspartame combined with societal trends in health-conscious attitudes. Having its product placed in Marvel comic movies like Spider-Man, X-Men and Iron Man probably didn't hurt either.

The year was 2000. Y2K fears plagued the world, George W. Bush won the presidency after a contentious Supreme Court ruling and beverage consumers liked their cola free of both sugar and caffeine. Caffeine-Free Diet Coke ranked in the top 10 that year, advancing, for some, the idea that America was a society of masochists or at least posing the question "Why not just drink water?"
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8. Diet Mountain Dew/7UP
This one's a bit of a head-scratcher. Is America's extreme-sports male youth market really calorie-conscious?

Debuting in 1988, Diet Mountain Dew's demographic has nearly always been the young and active set -- with its Dew Action Sports Tour and founding partnership of ESPN's X-Games.

Claiming 2% market share and +5.8% volume in 2010, it appears as though snowboarders and BMX riders are just as concerned about their waistlines as runway models.

And how did 7UP fall off the map? The once-iconic lemon-lime soda, which ranked at No. 8 in 2000 with a 2% market share, seems to have been left for dead. Perhaps beverage consumers are misinterpreting "Never Had It, Never Will" as a reference to their own buying habits. (The advertising slogan refers to the soda's caffeine-free recipe.) Or maybe the UNCOLA is simply suddenly...uncool.
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7. Diet Pepsi/Diet Pepsi
The more soft drinks change, the more they stay the same. Not ebbing from its spot or 5.3% market share in 10 years, Diet Pepsi is holding steady at No. 7. Volume is a different story, however: the cola saw a 4% increase in sales in 2000 versus last year's -5.2%.

The drink debuted in 1963 as "Patio Diet Cola," a soda alternative for diabetics. That short-lived brand name earned a subplot on Mad Men when Sterling Cooper created a commercial for prospective client Pepsi by aping the opening number in Bye Bye Birdie where an Ann-Margret look-a-like sang "Bye bye sugar."

Diet Pepsi (renamed in 1964) had a nearly two-decade head start on Diet Coke; its popularity peaked in the 1980s.
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6. Sprite/Dr Pepper
The Coca-Cola Company nefariously introduced Sprite in 1961 to appropriate the lemon-lime market from front-runner 7UP. The Seven Up Company even insisted that Coca-Cola misled independent bottlers to cease distributing its product in favor of Sprite and unsuccessfully sued its adversary.

Sprite ratcheted up the rivalry in the 1990s with shrewd branding decisions: The brand became the official soft drink of the NBA, launched the highly effective "Obey Your Thirst" ad campaign (featuring basketball great Grant Hill), along with the snarky anti-image commercials about the fictional "Jooky" beverage.

Certainly by the time the 2000 rankings were announced, Sprite had swallowed up the transparent, caffeine-free competition with a 6.6% market share against 7UP's 2%. But Sprite was still considered a "slowing star," since it actually lost volume. Meanwhile, Dr Pepper was making modest gains.

Ten years later, 7UP didn't even make the top 10 while Sprite placed sixth with a 5.6% of the market share and a 2% volume growth. But Dr Pepper was on the move. Perhaps a new rivalry was carbonating?
Minyanville
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5. Dr Pepper/Sprite

Named after drugstore owner Dr. Charles Pepper, Dr Pepper lays claim as America's "oldest major soft drink" with origins dating back to Morrison's Old Corner Drug Store in Waco, Texas in 1885. Its elusive taste and 23-flavor formula is the brand's major consumer draw.

Over 10 years, Dr Pepper gained a spot in the country's carbonated soft drink rankings. In 2000, when it brandished the slogan "Dr Pepper Makes the World Taste Better," the beverage held the sixth position with a market share of 6.3% and a .1% increase in volume. The latest industry data puts Dr Pepper, with its "One Taste & You Get It" campaign, in the top five with the same market share but a 2.8% volume bump. The Barry Manilow-penned jingle "Be A Pepper" is by far the beverage's most enduring spot even inspiring Robot #5's opening line in Short Circuit: "Wouldn't you like to be a Pepper, too?"

In a particularly shameless example of prime-time product placement, the dialog "We're on a road trip. Drinking Dr Pepper is practically a requirement," was actually written into a 2009 episode of 90210. Didn't exactly pack the punch of Forrest Gump telling JFK "I gotta pee" after drinking about 15 bottles of Dr Pepper.
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4. Mountain Dew/Mountain Dew

It's hard to imagine baby boomers "Doin' the Dew" or getting "vertical" when Mountain Dew was first introduced to Appalachia in the early 1940s. A generational trademark drink of sorts that has come to be likened to plutonium in a can, Mountain Dew didn't motocross its way onto the beverage scene. It was invented by beverage bottler brothers, Ally and Barney Hartman as a "lithiated-lemon" mixer for moonshine and was eventually marketed as a soda for the bluegrass set featuring characters like Willy "Gran'Pappy."

The New York Times' 1996 claim that "Mountain Dew has long been celebrated as a case study in how to build a consumer brand," is just as true today. With the power of parent PepsiCo behind it, Mountain Dew has been successfully packaged through the years as the high-voltage beverage to wash down the extreme sports adrenaline. Its current incarnation as the abbreviated "Mtn Dew" enjoyed a 6.8% market share in 2010, just slightly down from 7.2% in 2000.

Meanwhile, Coca-Cola has attempted to horn in on Mountain Dew's sales with the short-lived Surge and, more recently, its hybrid energy soda Vault.
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3. Pepsi-Cola/Diet Coke

Third place is real shake-up of the beverage industry. In a historic turn of events, Pepsi ceded the No. 2 spot to Diet Coke. To a brand powerhouse like Pepsi, third may as well be an honorable mention. The biggest loser in terms of volume at -2.6%, the beverage has fallen far from its "Pepsi Challenge" heyday.

But the decline is less of a sea change within the industry or consumer taste buds and more bad marketing tactics. Last year, the brand tapped into some of that famous "Pepsi Spirit" and made a bold move in what turned out to be the wrong direction by steering its advertising budget toward its altruistic Refresh Project.

This strategy strayed wildly from Pepsi's unprecedented star-studded marketing campaigns that featured pop music icons and pyrotechnics -- even if there was a mishap or two. Refocusing the brand in 2011 on sexy celebrities rather than $20 million in charitable grants will likely return Pepsi to its former glory as "The (Second) Choice of a New Generation."

Minyanville
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2. Diet Coke/Pepsi Cola

Diet Coke crushed poor old sugar-free TaB shortly after it hit the market in 1982 and rocketed to the top three by 1983. It took another nearly 30 years but now Diet Coke is having its way with Pepsi by claiming .4% more market share.

Over the last decade, the Diet Coke brand added a bevy of new flavors to its lineup like lemon, vanilla, cherry and lime and released a variant fortified with vitamins and minerals in 2007 called Diet Coke Plus. A year earlier, under pressure from of Wal-Mart (WMT), Diet Coke scrapped an aspartame-sweetened formula for its new Coke Zero product and substituted it with the better selling Splenda.

With Pepsi's branding blunder last year, consumers haven't necessarily been choosing more Diet Coke "Just for the taste of it." In fact the high-profile Diet Coke demographic is finding entirely different uses for the beverage -- like Lady GaGa who has taken to curling her hair with the cans.
Minyanville
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1. Coke/Coke Classic

Coke famously suffered its own marketing snafu in the 1980s as a reaction to several factors but most notably, Pepsi's encroaching share of the market while its own was shrinking. The red rocket retired its century-old recipe and went back to the drawing board. In April 1985, the company unveiled its replacement with a taste and packaging Frankenstein that was "New Coke."

If anything, New Coke's miserable failure was a testament to the flagship Coke brand. The massive public outcry for its beloved American institution was heeded by corporate and by July, the company promised original Coke's return to the marketplace.

Hence the "Coke Classic" designation. In the 2000 soft drink rankings, that brand held the top spot with 20.4% of the market share. By 2009, with New Coke being little more than a bad memory, the company felt safe to return to its tried and true "Coke." 2010's rankings were the first in 25 years that "Coke" was back on top, claiming 17% of the market share over Pepsi's 9.5%.
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