Pepsi Product Managers Try To Fool Everyone All The Time

by drjim on October 19, 2015

The Pepsi product managers are making a change, but is anything different?

The Pepsi product managers are making a change, but is anything different?
Image Credit: Allen

Over at the soft drink maker Pepsi, the product managers are in the middle of making a very big change. They are tinkering with the product development definition for their popular diet Pepsi drink. What makes this change so very interesting is that the reason that they are doing it is to respond to incorrect beliefs by their customers. Do you think that this is a good idea?

What’s The Problem?

Soft drink sales worldwide and especially in the U.S. have been on a decline for the past 10 years. In the U.S. 5.4% fewer soft drinks were purchased last year then the year before. The Pepsi product managers are feeling this pain and they desperately want to find a way to reverse this trend. One thing that they have been doing is going out and having talks with their customers in order to discover what they really want when they buy a soft drink.

It turns out that the decline in soft drink sales has a number of different causes. However, the main driving factor is that consumers want to avoid artificial sweeteners. In their place consumers are demanding that manufactures replace them with natural ingredients. What’s interesting about consumer behavior is that they are now actively trying to avoid diet soft drinks more than they are trying to avoid sugar, fat, salt, and even regular soda.

One of the challenges that any company that has a successful product faces is that if they start to make changes to it, then they face having a backlash from their customers. In the world of sodas this message was driven home very forcibly back in 1985 when Coke attempted to make a change to their main Coke soft drink product. That attempt turned out to be an embarrassing failure and Coke ended up having to change course and bring the original product back to the market.

How Is Pepsi Changing?

What the Pepsi product managers are doing with Diet Pepsi is removing the aspartame sweetener that they have been using since 1983. Now aspartame will be removed and it will be replaced with sucralose and acesulfame potassium. Note that what is going on here is that one artificial sweetener is being swapped out and replaced with two new artificial sweeteners. I’m not quite sure how this is going to look on anyone’s product manager resume.

The reason that the Pepsi product managers are giving for making this change is because they say that it is what their customers have told them to do. This change is designed to allow Pepsi to look like a company that knows how to listen to its customers. Doing this can have a big impact on the social media that is generated by its products. The motivation for the change is that aspartame has been blamed for a large number of maladies in social media circles: from diabetes to autism. However, and this is important, the Federal Food And Drug administration has repeatedly stated that there are 100’s of studies that clearly show that aspartame is completely safe.

Effectively what the Pepsi product managers are doing is making a significant change to their product for no good reason. By altering the ingredients that control how the product is sweetened, they are going to have an impact on the taste of Diet Pepsi. The end result of this is that they will end up driving away some of their existing customers. It’s also not clear how consumers will react to the change. The product will not be any more healthy – it’s just going to have different artificial sweeteners in it. It’s not clear that Pepsi’s changes will attract more customers.

What All Of This Means For You

The Pepsi product managers are playing with fire. They are making a change to the way that Diet Pepsi is created and this is going to end up changing how the product tastes. This will end up driving some of their loyal customers away. Is this a good idea?

The product managers are removing the aspartame sweetener that is currently being used in Diet Pepsi and they are replacing it with sucralose and acesulfame potassium. Although consumers have very clearly told manufacturers that they are trying to avoid artificial ingredients, the new sweeteners are both artificial. The motivation for Pepsi’s change is due to false and incorrect stories that have circulated in social media circles about harmful side effects of aspartame.

We’re going to have to sit back and watch what happens when the Pepsi product managers make this change – this isn’t part of their product manager job description. There is really no good reason for it and they are risking turning off a significant number of their current users even as the market for soda drinks starts to get smaller. Yes, they can announce the change, but very quickly consumers are going to realize that in the end, nothing has really changed.

– Dr. Jim Anderson
Blue Elephant Consulting –
Your Source For Real World Product Management Skills™

Question For You: Do you think that the Pepsi product managers should have selected an all-natural sweetener?

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What We’ll Be Talking About Next Time

When you are a product manager who is in charge of a successful product, you often become nervous when it becomes time to create and launch your next product. You want it to be a success also, but you’re not sure how to make this happen. Just imagine how the product managers at the aircraft company Boeing must feel when it comes time to create a new product development definition and design and launch a new type of airplane: how can they ensure that it will be a success and whom should they design it for?

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