Pepsi wants to take a mulligan on its just-reformulated diet soda: It made the awkward announcement Monday, admitting market researchers had messed up in thinking consumers would go for Diet Pepsi sweetened with sucralose (Splenda) instead of aspartame (NutraSweet or Equal). Now, for the second time in a year, the soda-maker will alter what goes into that drink.
The company says backlash against the new Diet Pepsi was immediate and actually serious enough to amount to a six-to-one ratio of negative to positive comments following the launch last August. The blunder ultimately caused retail sales to fall by 11 percent in the first quarter of 2016, and its market share to slip almost half a percentage point.
Soda sales are lagging, but diet-soda sales are downright abysmal. As part of its effort to boost them, Pepsi thought it made sense to abandon controversy-laden aspartame, which has been (erroneously) blamed for causing everything from cancer to autism for decades. The company market-tested multiple recipes, finally settling on a sucralose blend. What it apparently forgot is that all people fall into one of three camps — the Sweet’N Low camp, the Equal camp, or the Splenda camp — and what few loyalists Diet Pepsi had left got pretty ticked once their sweetener went AWOL. Even more embarrassing is that Pepsi said last year that surveys showed aspartame was “the No. 1 reason Americans were dropping diet cola,” but as even one bottler told the paper, “They made a mistake … because it doesn’t taste as good.’’
The aspartame version will be back in stores by September, but apparently because “consumers want choice in diet colas,” it will join the sucralose version, not replace it. “Classic Sweetener Blend” Diet Pepsi (what it’s calling the one with aspartame) will come in a light-blue can, while the sucralose version, called “Now Aspartame Free,” will come in a silver can. Pepsi Max — PepsiCo’s other diet soda that delivers twice the caffeine and includes odd ingredients like ginseng — will be rebranded “Pepsi Zero Sugar.”