Is it ever OK to just accept declining sales?

OK, this is a weird one I know. However it seems pertinent in light of recent news that Coke are making “massive changes” to their Diet Coke range following a 1.9% sales drop in 2016.

On the face of it taking action makes complete sense. In the world of Coke, 1.9% of annual sales is an awful lot of cans, and you can’t just let such revenue slip away without putting up a fight.


I’m not so sure. The reason for the decline in Diet Coke sales lies not so much in any failings on their part, as it does in the shifting cultural ground beneath their feet. Basically perceptions of what’s “healthy” have changed, and unfortunately for them aspartame hasn’t made the cut. The result of this, inevitably, as been a migration by a lot of their “health users” away from the product, and onto something a touch more natural.

They’re hardly the first brand to suffer such an erosion. Spare a thought for all the poor asbestos manufacturers out there, who surely thought the good times would never end, until, despite their continued manufacturing excellence, they did.

Yes, sadly sometimes a product simply has had its time. You exist in a wider context, and if that context turns against you, well, that’s just bad luck.

Such a fact of life is something we surely can all understand. However that doesn’t mean we know how to respond when it happens to us. Coke’s reaction? Fight back. They’re bringing out the big guns with new packaging for Diet Coke, a range of new flavours under the banner, and a nice new ad campaign.

Do any of these things negate the way the tide has turned against them? Not in the slightest. And, for this reason, whilst they may achieve a sales spike from the novelty of their play, they will surely fail to arrest the brand’s continued decline in the long term.

Of course, they could have gone more radical and actually tinkered with the core product to try and respond to changing consumer tastes. But then Coke, of all brands, knows better than to make such a dumb move as that – because even with a sales dip this is still an extraordinarily successful product, with millions of resolutely loyal fans who will continue to lap it up until the day they die.

Therefore, considering they’re damned if they do and damned if they don’t, wouldn’t it be OK to just… let Diet Coke shrink a bit?

I’m not arguing that one should let a brand simply go to seed. Smart management of the decline could have massive financial implications, so the Diet Coke team can hardly switch to auto-pilot just yet. I’m simply saying that, sometimes, fighting back against a cultural shift that is entirely out of your hands is throwing good money after bad. A sales decline is not necessarily somebody’s “fault”, it’s just part of the natural lifecycle of a product.

Maybe I’m being unfair on Coke here. There’s a lot I don’t know, and perhaps their plan for the brand is a really smart play. I simply use them to make the point – like it or not products come, and products go. Smart brands know when to let a product gently drift away, and have a clear strategy that enables them to seamlessly introduce something new in its place, continually reinventing themselves whilst remaining thematically consistent. If you’re completely married to a specific product however, a specific sku, then you are at the mercy of fortune, and eventually the world will move on without you.

So a sales decline? Not always such a bad thing. But good luck telling the shareholders…

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