7Up mixes up a slightly healthier option

7Up is serving up the latest addition in the trend of less sugary soft drinks: 7Up Plus, a 10-calorie option spiked with a splash of fruit juice and a dash of key nutrients.

The bright pink, berry-flavored beverage is meant to address Americans' growing thirst for better-for-you drinks, including juices and bottled water, and the shrinking market for full-calorie sodas.

"We basically consider it a whole new category," said Kelli Freeman, 7Up's director of brand marketing.

The new drink, made with artificial sweetener Splenda, will have some competition in the mid-calorie market.  Coke's C2, launched early this summer, has 45 calories per 8-ounce serving (70 calories per can) and is marketed as having half the carbs of regular Coke. Pepsi Edge, with similar calories and carbs, was unveiled in June. Both use a blend of sweeteners, including sucralose, Splenda's primary ingredient.

The new category was designed to recapture soda drinkers who don't like the taste of diet versions but want to cut back on calories.  Regular Coke and Pepsi both sold fewer cases last year, down 3 percent and 4.5 percent respectively, according to Beverage Digest. Meanwhile, sales of Diet Coke and Diet Pepsi both grew by more than 5 percent.

A first: Vitamin-fortified soft drink
7Up Plus claims 10 calories and 2 grams of carbs per 8-ounce serving, plus 10 percent of the daily recommendations for vitamin C and calcium. The regular version contains 100 calories and 26 grams of carbs.

"It’s the first enhanced soda in the U.S. bearing a major brand name," said John Sicher, Beverage Digest's editor and publisher. "It's daring, and they should be applauded for taking this kind of innovation risk."

7Up, which enlisted a panel of 6,000 consumers to help test the new offering, claims the Plus taste reflects how many consumers were already drinking their soda — mixed with juice at home.

The soft drink maker believes it is an appropriate extension of 7Up's long-time branding as "the Uncola," which reflects not only the lemon-lime taste but the caffeine-free formulation of all its products, including Plus. 7Up is a flagship brand for Cadbury Schweppes Inc., which also makes Dr. Pepper and Snapple.

But these are tough times for the soda industry in general — it's experiencing flat growth — and for 7Up specifically. The soda fell to the No. 10 spot on Beverage Digest's list of top sodas last year, beaten out even by Pepsico's Sierra Mist, a new competitor. It produced 126 million cases in 2003, just a fraction of the 599 million made by rival Sprite.

Celebrity-studded ad campaign
The new 7Up will roll out this fall, backed by national TV and print ads in October featuring TV talk hosts Regis Philbin and Kelly Ripa, along with Cynthia Nixon and Kristin Davis from HBO's "Sex in the City."

While Plus tested well with soda drinkers young and old, the company says, it is targeting women who make household buying decisions and are looking for "small wins" — minor changes that help consumers feel they are making healthier choices about the products they buy.

"You can probably imagine, the girls from 'Sex in the City,' what their lifestyle is," Freeman said. "They're not really ready to make big lifestyle changes, but small wins are things that help them feel better about themselves."

Beverage makers see growth in this healthier category. Pepsico says the largest portion of its product growth last year was in "better for you" products, and late last month unveiled a "Smart Spot" icon to help shoppers identify healthier options among its brands, which include Tropicana and Frito Lay.