The Uncola's Unclever New Ad Campaign
By Paul Lukas

(FORTUNE Magazine) – Remember about 30 years back, when 7 Up began describing itself as the Uncola and ran those great commercials celebrating the "uncola nut"? And remember those cool upside-down 7 Up glasses?

Most likely you do remember--and that, paradoxically, is part of 7 Up's problem. As John Sicher, editor of Beverage Digest, explains, "7 Up is perceived today as something that appeals to an older generation, not as a hip, with-it brand." Indeed, 7 Up's own research shows that while the soft drink continues to be popular with boomers who grew up on the Uncola campaign, its brand identity is barely a blip on the cultural radar of today's 12- to 24-year-olds, the demographic segment that consumes the most soda. As a result, 7 Up's market share has deteriorated throughout the '90s, even though the share of the citrus-flavored soda category--which includes 7 Up's primary competitor, Sprite--has increased during the same period.

After years of ho-hum initiatives (remember the "It's an Up thing" campaign? Neither does anyone else), the 7 Up brass have now gotten more aggressive, or maybe just more panicky. Earlier this year they took the risky step of reformulating 7 Up's flavor for the first time in the brand's 69-year history. This was accompanied by a design face-lift that eliminated the term "Uncola" from the soda's packaging, a move that was either long overdue or heretical, depending on your perspective. Either way, the new package's dud of a slogan--"Crisp, clear refreshing taste!"--isn't exactly the sort of copy that excites the MTV crowd.

But while "Uncola" has been banished from the 7 Up lexicon, "un" still has a major role in the brand's future. In fact, a new $50 million ad/promo campaign, set to debut during the Super Bowl in January, centers almost exclusively on the leveraging of this lowly prefix, which will now refer not to 7 Up itself but rather to its consumers, portrayed in the upcoming ads as a group of stylish teens known as "Uns," who intrepidly drink 7 Up despite the efforts of an evil collective called the Anti-Refreshment Syndicate. The campaign's tag line is--get ready, now--"Are U an Un?"

Uh, are U serious? The man paid to address that question is John Clarke, chief advertising officer for Dr Pepper/Seven-Up, who insists that dumping "Uncola" and then coming back nearly a year later with "Are U an Un?" does not constitute an un-again, off-again contradiction. "Our research shows that we have an image issue, not a product issue," Clarke explains, inadvertently playing right into the hands of Sprite's hugely successful "Image is nothing" campaign. "So we want to create a user personality for 7 Up drinkers to Relate to. We're trying to take that gene of equity--un--and establish it as a consumer descriptor rather than a product descriptor."

Clarke's attempt to create a legion of branded consumers--Generation Un?--echoes Dr Pepper's old "I'm a Pepper, you're a Pepper" campaign. But consumers aren't always willing to have their identities reconfigured by an ad, especially if the new identity sounds ridiculous. Seriously, imagine how much persuasion it would take to get a typical 15-year-old to proudly declare, "Yes, I am an Un!" And just what is an Un, anyway? For a guy who has staked his brand's future on this question, Clarke has an awfully fuzzy idea of the answer. "Okay, well, that's a good question," he says hesitantly, rustling some papers on his desk. "I have a little description of that, if I can find it." Having apparently located the proper document, Clarke says Uns are "unique and confident, people who think for themselves and make their own choices, who decide what to do instead of being told what to do"--except, you know, when being told what to do by a $50 million 7 Up ad campaign.

Clarke had better not need crib sheets for all his ideas, because the stakes for 7 Up are magnified by the brand's logistical difficulties. Unlike Coke's Sprite, 7 Up doesn't benefit from a national, proprietary system of bottlers, which is crucial in getting the product to retailers. Instead, 7 Up's corporate parent, Cadbury Schweppes, relies on a loose collection of independent bottlers and Pepsi operators, the latter of which may want to jump ship if Pepsi's new lemon-lime soda, Storm--now being test-marketed--goes national in 1999. "Coke and Pepsi can get a brand on virtually any shelf in America," says Sicher, the Beverage Digest editor. "So for 7 Up, laser-sharp marketing becomes even more important."

Leaving aside the question of whether "Are U an Un?" qualifies as "laser sharp," 7 Up's real problem may be that three decades of "un"-centric marketing have left it better known for what it isn't than what it is--in short, it has become a brand that no longer stands for anything. The magnitude of this liability becomes evident when John Clarke is asked what makes 7 Up better or cooler than Sprite. "I don't know," he says, sounding decidedly un-Un. "I really haven't thought about it in those terms."

PAUL LUKAS, author of Inconspicuous Consumption, obsesses over the details of consumer culture so you don't have to.