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Diet CokeA high-ranking Diet Coke executive indicates the brand may be required to polish up its image due to growing consumer concerns over artificial sweeteners.

On a press call with financial analysts this week, Coca-Cola’s North American and Latin American chief, Steve Cahillane, shared that Diet Coke is “under a bit of pressure” as a result of public discomfort with aspartame, the main ingredient in NutraSweet.

According to an article in The Charlotte Observer, Cahillane said the problem is not specific to Diet Coke, but has affected sales for all diet soda brands. The report went on to note that soda drinks have fallen slightly overall, diet soda sales seem to be declining at a faster rate; Coke’s sales fell by 1% last year, while Diet Coke fell by 3%.

Diet Coke is still the No. 2 soft drink in the U.S., right behind Classic Coke, according to 2013 data from Beverage Digest. The brand is taking a proactive approach to maintaining a positive brand-image, Cahillane said, investing in high-profile promotions like a tie-in with with pop star Taylor Swift.

And this summer the company began running ads that directly addressed the safety issue, while also distributing fact sheets on aspartame to bottlers and retailers.

The explosion in popularity of social media has created additional challenges for brands to keep messaging on topic. In today’s world, viral chit-chat can move markets and create news. While a solid image is a good defense, even the most established brands can be as susceptible to shifting consumers moods as leaves in a windstorm. Brands cycle in and out of fashion, and the common wisdom is that while it’s difficult to build a great reputation, it’s relatively easy to lose one.

A 2012 article in Geekwire recommended building internal social media teams to message customers and drive  imaging. Experts agree that actively dealing with the problem is better than ignoring it and hoping it will blow over. Whether this is just the tip of the aspartame backlash and brands should be doing more, remains to be seen.

But the Coca-Cola Co. reports that sales of sugar-me Coke rose 2% in North America in the most recently reported quarter, and that the new Coke Zero, which contains artificial sweeteners and is targeted specifically to men, rose 5% during the same period.

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by Brandon Gutman
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Brandon is an expert connector and seasoned business development professional. As Principal of Brand Approved, he's led the advisory to become the bridge between brand marketers and best of breed service providers that are reshaping the industry.

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