I limit my aspartame and soda intake, but made an exception to the latter with Diet Wild Cherry Pepsi as a guilty pleasure. I did this because they had stopped using aspartame. But, they reverted to its use and I—reporter though I am—failed to notice. As a result, I’ve unwittingly been consuming aspartame for a while.
Until yesterday, when I put a 12-pack in my grocery cart. Something compelled me to check the ingredients to make sure they were still acceptable. My first misgiving occurred when I couldn’t find ingredients on the box. Not wanting to break it open, I looked instead at a bottle of the stuff and voila, discovered aspartame is back in the formula!
Outraged, I threw the 12-pack back on the shelf. When I got home, I did a bit of checking and found the following article in a February issue of AdAge: “PepsiCo—which faced a consumer backlash after it pulled aspartame from Diet Pepsi in 2015—is making a full reversal and will once again use the controversial sweetner [sic] in the soda’s mainstream variety…The brand yanked aspartame in mid-2015, replacing it with sucralose and acesulfame potassium, known as Ace-K. But the move backfired as loyalists clamored for the original formula. So in 2016, the brand brought back the aspartame version—but only in limited quantities marketed as ‘classic sweetener blend.’ It kept the aspartame-free version as its mainstream variety. But now Diet Pepsi is making the aspartame version its main variety again as part of a marketing revamp.”
Interesting that Pepsi didn’t telegraph the change by putting the new ingredients on the box or calling out a “new formula” in a high-profile enough way for people to get the message clearly. “Classic sweetener blend?” C’mon. Come clean. Obviously, they’re soft-peddling the switch so as not to make a splash with the anti-aspartame crowd.
Pepsi committed a customer service faux pas with me, chiefly because the switch back wasn’t clear and direct. What upset me was much more about their lack of transparency than the return to classic sweetener blend. These incidents get etched indelibly into my brain. As a result, I will sidestep Pepsi products going forward.
They won’t miss me. I don’t buy enough to make a difference. But what about all the fellow aspartame-hating-Diet Cherry-Pepsi-lovers who discover what’s happened? Trust gets eroded; people turn to a competitor.
This customer disservice is indicative of how corporate America tries to stay under the radar, so as not to raise red flags. Here’s how these type of announcements can be handled in a way that leaves no doubt about the integrity of the company or the moves it makes:
- Go all in to let the world know. If you’re doing it, be willing to trumpet it. Let the critics weigh in, but at least come across as honest and transparent.
- Make your case. Aspartame, Sucralose and other artificial sweeteners are controversial. There are advantages and disadvantages to each. If a company is using an ingredient, they should be willing to tell why straight on—without a bunch of “classic sweetener blend” gobbledygook.
Full and candid disclosure can go a long way toward building customer trust. Much of corporate America has a hard time seeing its value.
Mark Lusky is a veteran writer, storyteller and author, with 40+ years of public relations, advertising, marketing and journalism experience. AKA The Happy Curmudgeon, Mark is the owner of a 34-year-old, Denver-based marketing communications firm.