Coca-Cola Gets More Sprite-ly With E-Commerce

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Coca-Cola Co. will unveil arguably its most ambitious Internet initiative yet on Oct. 15 with the launch of Sprite.com, an information-only site dedicated to the lemon-lime soft drink popular with teen-agers.


Allying with RocketCash Corp., a teen-focused service and portal that allows for purchases online without a credit card, Coca-Cola will offer rewards for 14 months under 1 billion Sprite bottle caps redeemable for cash to shop on the Internet.


"The obvious challenge of trying to send a Sprite through a printer wasn't good enough," said Dick Patton, associate brand manager for Sprite at Coca-Cola North America, Atlanta. "What we want to do is build loyalty among teens, so we're launching this program on the Internet to increase the frequency of consumption among our core target consumers."


According to industry newsletter Beverage Digest, Coca-Cola last year sold 670 million cases of Sprite in the United States. It is the No. 5 soft drink in the country after Coke Classic, Pepsi-Cola, Diet Coke and Mountain Dew. In 1999, Sprite led the lemon-lime category with a 6.8 percent market share vs. 2.1 percent for Dr. Pepper/Seven Up Inc.'s 7UP brand.


The Sprite site will have an urban feel consistent with prior marketing communications, Patton said.


Besides hosting the co-branded RocketCash account and linking to the promo partner's site, Sprite.com will include hip-hop music and proprietary graphics, all the handiwork of Sprite's interactive agency, Red Sky Interactive, San Francisco.


John Sicher, editor and publisher at Beverage Digest in Bedford Hills, NY, said Coca-Cola and Pepsi are working overtime to use the Internet for pushing product sales. Coke is aligned with America Online Inc.'s AOL service and Pepsi has a relationship with Yahoo.


"I think marketing huge, well-known consumer brands on the Internet, in many ways, is at an early stage," Sicher said. "[But] there's one thing I will predict: If anyone's going to be successful out of this, it's going to be Coke and Pepsi because their brands are so well-known and they're two of the best consumer brand marketing companies in the country."


The Sprite promotion, and particularly the decision to partner with RocketCash for four years, typify Coca-Cola's aggressive online approach. RocketCash, Mountain View, CA, essentially converts different types of promotional codes and scratch-offs into online purchasing through merchants on its site.


Through 2001, caps on 20-ounce, 1-liter and 500-milliliter bottles of Sprite will be marked with special codes. Eleven out of 12 caps can be redeemed for RocketCash. One in 12 caps can be exchanged instantly at the store for a free Sprite.


Participation is simple. Consumers log on to the Sprite site at www.sprite.com, enter the alphanumeric codes found under the bottle cap and find out its worth. This varies from 20 cents to $1 in Sprite.com-RocketCash, which is automatically stored in the consumer's personal wallet at www.rocketcash.com.


RocketCash's site entitles consumers of all ages to open a free online account. Consumers can add cash, checks, money orders, accepted loyalty currency such as Beenz and Cybergold, or RocketCash. They then can shop at more than 100 merchants such as JCrew.com, Amazon.com, Alloy Online, Staples.com and CDNow.com, all via RocketCash.com and Sprite.com.


For its troubles, RocketCash will collect an affiliate commission, or cut of sales, for driving shoppers and potential customers to merchants parked on its site. Both Coca-Cola and RocketCash declined to disclose terms of the deal.


"Clearly a company like Coca-Cola that's selling beverages [doesn't] have the type of product that you'd normally buy online," said Jeffrey Mason, president/CEO of RocketCash. "At the same time, what we've learned together is that being able to offer an incentive where people can buy other things unrelated to their products specifically encourages them to buy more of the beverage itself."


Dr. Pepper/Seven Up -- Coca-Cola and Pepsi's rival in the non-cola category -- realized this logic a few months ago. The Plano, TX, beverage marketer in July teamed with RocketCash competitor DoughNet Inc., San Francisco, to launch a month-long back-to-school promotion for Hawaiian Punch.


Again attempting to boost consumption of the popular teen drink, consumers were asked to look for DoughCodes behind the labels of Hawaiian Punch cans and bottles. Entering the code online at www.doughnet.com/hawaiianpunch awarded the consumer a DoughNet online account and a chance to win cash prizes from $50 to $10,000.


But while Dr. Pepper restricted marketing of its Web promotion to pole signs, point-of-purchase displays, shelf ads, and mentions on Hawaiian Punch packaging, the Sprite.com-RocketCash promo gets an entire ad campaign.


Handled by Lowe Lintas & Partners, New York, the campaign encompasses national TV, radio, print, Internet, special packaging graphics and in-store point-of-purchase displays. The tag line is succinct: "Drink Sprite. Get RocketCash. Buy what YOU want."


But for all the noise and hoopla, consumers still won't be able to buy Sprite on the brand's site.


"Maybe someday, through their distributors [going online] they can do that," RocketCash's Mason said, "but I guess now it's more responding to their shoppers wanting these kinds of incentives in a long-term plan.


"One of the things Coca-Cola intentionally wanted to do is make this more than a three- to four-month program because, in general terms, teens are not excited about that as much as they would a multiyear loyalty program where they know these RocketCash dollars will remain in effect for a longer period of time."
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