What went wrong with 7 Up?

By Tom Dougherty

The 7 Up Brand has all but disappeared

7 UpThe primary directive behind building any brand is that you must be single-minded. You can’t be everything to everybody. You must put a stake in the ground and, with authority, say, “This is who we are.”

There are many benefits to this approach. For one, your brand message becomes clear to those you are trying to reach. Also, even though it may be a brand message that is universal, it tells a prospect that being a part of your brand is being a member of an exclusive club. It tells prospects that they are special.

It also gives your company guidance. If you are about “simplicity,” let’s say, then everything you do – including the messages and advertising you deliver – reflects simplicity.

The Great Divide

It’s with that knowledge that we look what went wrong with the soft drink, 7 Up. Owned today by the Dr. Pepper Snapple Group, 7 Up was once only behind Coca-Cola and Pepsi in market share. It was the Uncola, with ads featuring Jeffrey Holder.

That was in the late 60s and early 70s. Since then, under the 7 Up brand, there have been 16 versions of 7 Up from “7 Upside Down” (yes, the logo was upside down) to Cherry 7 Up, which was the subject of a lawsuit because 7 Up claimed it was an antioxidant.

Even stranger, since its market share started plummeting about a decade ago, it has had so many different themelines and different ad campaigns in an attempt to stall its market share fall that the brand has essentially become meaningless.

To put it simply, 7 Up couldn’t decide who it was and who it was for. It went from a soda giant to an afterthought. There are market forces that have affected 7 Up as well, but its own lack of brand meaning is what is doing it in.

The fall

In 1972, 7 Up reached its pinnacle. The Uncola brand and the famous advertising campaign were in full swing. It was the third best-selling soda brand in the US, and the brand could leverage the Uncola brand across many messages.

7 UpThe advertising spouted that 7 Up had no caffeine, with Holder saying, “Never had it. Never will.” Everything was cool. 7 Up was cool. The Uncola brand was positioned against the rest of the market, thereby offering a true choice.

Then something happened. Its market share fell off. Advertising campaigns were changed out ad nauseum. The diet colas entered the market and began taking over.

7 Up, like the rest of the soda brands, had its own diet version. Market share continued to slip to where it was the eighth best-selling soft drink in 2000, with 2% market share.

More than a decade later, it has less than 1% market share, its sales dropped 3% in 2013, continuing a downward spiral. 7 Up is basically irrelevant. That’s especially alarming when most of the soda market is targeted to younger audiences, meaning that many of the largest group of buyers of soft drinks hasn’t even heard of 7 Up.

What happened?

There are a variety of reasons often given for why 7 Up has fallen so hard that it’s becoming the soda equivalent of Blockbuster.

Let’s list the most common theories, only to realize that, while they all may or may not have contributed, none of them address the real issue: Who is the 7 Up user?

More Competition

7 Up is no longer the only cola of its ilk in the market. When it was king, 7 Up was the only soda that wasn’t a “dark” soda that mattered. Today, you have Sierra Mist, Sprite and, the real comer, Mountain Dew.

7 UpToday, Mountain Dew is the fourth most-popular soda in America, a relatively recent phenomena considering it’s been around since the 40s (when its name was a reference to moonshine).

But Mountain Dew did something right at the time of 7 Up’s fall. It decided who it was for. Mountain Dew had a sort of grass roots campaign that was akin to what Pabst Blue Ribbon has become to hipsters. In the case of that beer, the hipster decided that drinking the comically worst beer on the market made him cool.

In the case of Mountain Dew, a legend grew from teen males that the Dew was caffeine-addled “rocket fuel,” prompting PepsiCo (which owns Mountain Dew) to feature that demographic skateboarding, partying and playing video games in ads. Naturally, Mountain Dew has become one of the dominant sponsors of the X Games.

In some ways, you can spot Mountain Dew as the anti-7 Up. While 7 Up has espoused a mild, anti-caffeine, even Caribbean feel (during the Holder days), Mountain Dew is the exact opposite. By firmly deciding who it is for, Mountain Dew simply blew past 7 Up. It now has more than 7% percent of the soda market share, more than seven times that of 7 Up.

Other Factors

There are other competitive factors. Energy drinks have been rising in volume by double digits recently, with ready-to-drink coffee, bottled water and ready-to-drink tea also rising. Carbonated soft drinks are dropping. The only segment of the beverage industry doing worse is fruit beverages.

7 Up was not able to crack the diet market

This one is interesting. Diet colas started emerging in the market when Diet Coke premiered in 1983 and the boom took off. It started a trend in which nearly all soda brands had a light version, a response to concerns over the amount of sugar and calories in traditional soft drinks.

7 UpIn the last six years, diet brands continue to move up. In that time, Diet Coke has gone from third place to second (behind its own Classic brand) and Coke Zero is already in 10th place. (Diet Pepsi and Diet Mountain Dew are also in the top 10.)

7 Up was actually early in the movement, having Sugar Free 7 Up in 1973 and renaming it Diet 7 Up in 1979. So why didn’t they take hold in the market?

Some say the problems 7 Up had were twofold. For one, 7 Up kept changing its formula, using aspartame, then switching to Splenda as a sweetener then back to aspartame. Drinkers couldn’t keep up with the changing taste.

The other issue was that 7 Up had already been marketing itself as a “healthy” soda choice because it did not include caffeine (in what was becoming a more caffeinated world) and that it was already positioned as the Uncola, with its clear color.

Did a strength become a weakness? Seems like a stretch but the thinking goes that people thought 7 Up wasalready diet and light, what did it need a light version for?

But, for that to have been the cause, the fall of 7 Up would have to have happened much earlier. In fact, it’s worth noting that the 7 Up diet brands fare just as badly as the main 7 Up soda.

No, what happened that was something happened to the brand.

What is the problem and how can it be fixed?

7 Up ProductsThe problem isn’t just the market forces and it’s not the taste of 7 Up that went out of fashion, either. In fact, you’d be surprised, if you are blindfolded, how similar the taste is between 7 Up and…Coke. (We’ve done taste tests with large groups to prove it.)

For 7 Up, what really happened is that once the Uncola ran its course (and it lasted into the early 90s in some markets), 7 Up and its sub-brands ran with a variety of positions, such as:

“Now that’s refreshing”
“It’s cool to be clear”
“6 Up was not enough. We went one louder.”
“Make 7 Up yours”
“Are you an Un?”
“Seven flavors in one drink”
“Ridiculously Bubbly”
“Be yourself. Be refreshing. Be 7 Up.”

The last one is probably most top of mind for most of us. It was the ad that showed musician Cee Lo Green from infanthood, already making musical noises, to today’s star.

 

The ad was catchy and it held promise. It even had an equity marker as the musical noises Mr. Green made as a child mimicked the sound of opening a 7 Up can. And the actual position of being yourself, which is defined as being refreshing, isn’t terrible.

But it was too clever (you’re refreshing like 7 Up, get it? nudge, nudge) and it all basically came down to a celebrity endorsement. Its demonstration of who 7 Up is for comes down to, well, Cee Lo Green.

Can 7 Up come back?

Absolutely. Unlike other failing brands, such as something like Radio Shack, there is equity in the 7 Up brand. When it was the Uncola, it was positioned against the rest of the market and it suggested that its drinkers were not ordinary.

7 Up7 Up, without using the Uncola position because it would seem retro (and, therefore, trendy), needs to rebrand itself so that its drinkers see themselves as different from the pack that drinks Coke, Pepsi and the rest (including energy drinks, which are taking market share from sodas). The recent Cee Lo Green campaign came close, but it was a lazy attempt.

7 Up needs to look different and have a very different tone from what the rest of sodas advertise today. Through quantitative research, 7 Up (and, in essence, the Dr. Pepper Snapple Group) needs to find the emotional triggers that drive how consumers choose soft drinks. Once those triggers are found, 7 Up must claim it and define thatas who 7 Up drinkers are and why that makes them different.

The Uncola isn’t dead. Its spirit just needs to be brought back to life in a new form.

(Read a study of packaged goods here)