An Ode to Coke Zero

Back when I was in grad school in Washington DC, I wrote a brief blog post about my love for Coca-Cola Zero.  I didn’t get into much detail there, so 9 years later, as I still drink Coke Zero regularly, I wanted to revisit the topic in greater depth.

I wanted to cover it especially before the rumored sunsetting of the Coke Zero branding, which is being replaced (allegedly), with Coca-Cola No Sugar, which will taste more like regular Coke but is otherwise the same except for lacking sodium benzoate.

To establish my cred, I probably drink Coke Zero every day.  It’s a regular staple of my diet.  If people finally discover it contains carcinogens, I’m most likely a dead man.  I’m sure I’ve spent tens of thousands of dollars on this stuff.  I’ve got my wife hooked onto it.  At Georgetown, several classmates got hooked on it.

History

I don’t know much about the history of Coke Zero, but according to its wiki page, it was created to be primarily targeted towards men, since Diet Coke was seen as a product for women.  It was released in 2005 but was piloted in several different iterations prior to that.  It got an early start with white packaging.

The Taste

Taste of course is the primary reason I love Coke Zero.  Function is crucial.  For someone who doesn’t want to drink just plain water, who doesn’t like seltzer, who doesn’t like tea or coffee (despite British parents who have long since assimilated into American society), but who needs caffeine for 18-20 hour days, who enjoys a sweet drink paired with even the most sophisticated meal, Coke Zero delivers in every way.  In a post HFCS world, where my taste buds are no longer receptive to 20-35g of sugar in a beverage, the artificial sweetener in Coke Zero (aspartame), is a modern solution to a 90’s and naught’s problem.

In short, we have a sugar-free caffeinated sweet all-purpose beverage.  It checks all the boxes.

And yes, Coke Zero on-par with Diet Coke.  At this point, the main differences between the two come down to taste and availability.  Diet Coke is almost always more available than Coke Zero, but I prefer the taste of Coke Zero.  Diet Coke apparently contains more caffeine than both regular Coke and Coke Zero.

The Bottle

The primary vessel for drinking Coke Zero, at least for me, is the legendary 20 fl oz bottle.  According to Coca-Cola’s official chronology, the contoured bottle first came into production in about 1915.  The plastic variant emerged during the rise of plastics in the 90’s, in 1993.

The perks of this perfect design? The contoured design (along with textured bumps) fit the hand naturally, allowing for less slip and more grip.   The design is a disadvantage for packing and space management, since there’s more wasted space in the silhouette than, say, in the aluminum can footprint.  But that’s not my problem.

The cap of a bottle is crucial.  For me being on the go in school, in NYC, popping my Coke Zero bottle in my bag while on a flight or on the subway, the screwable cap means I can save my drink without having to finish it in one go, like I would with a can.  And as my life is primarily sitting in front of a computer writing code, having a cap means that any slip ups I have won’t spill Coke Zero all over my laptop.

The Branding

Regular (Classic) Coke has traditionally had a red background.  Diet Coke took a silver backdrop to denote its lack of sugar.  The Coke Zero line has been predominately black in color.  Coke Life, added recently and using cane sugar (who cares?), is primarily green.  Coke No Sugar appears to still be predominantly black but with a large red element.

Within those primary delineations, sub-flavors will add minor color hints, such as the Cherry Coke Zero adding a cherry image, or Vanilla Coke Zero adding a vanilla-ish yellow-tan color.  In doing some research for this post, I also discovered that in Europe there’s a blood orange variant, Coca-Cola Light Sango, evidently existing because Holland loves Coke:

I have no real opinion on the branding for the products except that colors largely seem to make sense.  I talked about the Coke Zero label in the past blog post being a designer’s worst nightmare, what with awkward kerning and lettering that gradually increased in thickness from fat to thin from left to right to denote fewer calories/carbs.

Coke has since dropped that original amateurish Coke Zero label and brought the design into the main Coke design fold, but with a black background.

My Coke Rewards

For a while in 2016, I figured I might as well take advantage of the number of bottles I was buying and thus take part in the My Coke Rewards program.

Basically Coke developed a web site where you could enter codes off Coke products in order to translate your purchases into reward points, which were eventually redeemable for Coke-themed products, cash/vacation/etc. lotteries, etc.

I was pretty impressed that Coke was able to put together a team which built this online platform and had it working fairly well.  The site was slow to a degree (as is common with leviathan companies which create promo sites) but it worked for the most part, though I’m fairly sure its internals felt like a mid-naughts-era web design stack.

I entered a ton of codes, which meant I had to sit there with bottle caps on my desk and type in all the codes on them.

Obviously this became too laborious and I was pretty much entering sweepstakes with my points anyway, as the platform had little stickiness or payoff.  I eventually stopped using it.

Availability

This is the biggest thing that sticks in my craw when it comes to Coke Zero.

Why is it that pretty much any store I go to, there are shelves and shelves of classic Coke and maybe Diet Coke, but there’s always a sold out shelf of Coke Zero?  If you were selling your product at stores, would you not readjust your inventories to reflect customer preference?  Would you not allocate more shelf space towards Coke Zero and stock less of the other versions of Coke?

This has happened to me at enough different, scattered locations that there is only one explanation:  either Coca-Cola or the stores who sell its products do not see Coke Zero as a viable product outside of being an alternative to classic Coke to capture a specific demographic, or Coca-Cola believes that even its own alternative products (Coke Life, Coke Zero), are threats to the sanctity and bona fide original classic Coke flavor.

I could understand that if, in Coke’s world view, a Coke product became more popular than the flagship classic Coke, then this would spin the company into an identity crisis where it was no longer known for whatever “Coke” means these days as an international brand but instead as a beverage company rotating through easily replaceable drink brands.

Whatever the motive, this often means that I have to plan out at least a small bit about which store I go to, depending on the reliability of that store to stock Coke Zero for me whenever I may want it.

Final Words

For me, Coke Zero is one of those few consumer goods I would legitimately classify as deserving of brand loyalty and fanaticism; it hits the mark in every category.  While we live in an era of unlimited choice, what that often means is we’re forced to make compromises.  But Coke Zero is a legitimate 10 out of 10.