Why are you buying this drink?

October, 1998: It’s orange. It’s mainly sugar and water. It outsells Coke in supermarkets. Sunny Delight is the marketing success of the decade. Haven’t tried it yet? Don’t worry. You will.

To celebrate the long-awaited return of The Face, we have selected a stand-out story from each year of our extensive archive, from 1980 to 2004.

Remembered by writer Stephen Armstrong

Everything in culture was up for grabs by The Face. The first story I wrote for the magazine was about pubs, and how these superpubs’ had started dominating the high street, how they operated, how they were changing how young people were drinking and socialising. Richard Benson, the Editor then, said: Assuming that the shop is as culturally relevant as the charts or the club, what’s the banger?’ Which I thought was a very smart move because it recognised that every aspect of the reader’s lives had value and deserved attention. That’s why another feature I did for the magazine was about chocolate bars. Sunny Delight had seemingly come from nowhere to be the dominant drink amongst kids. It was a street drink. But what was interesting about Sunny D’, as it quickly became known, was that it wasn’t made by a small brand. A huge corporation was using really massive marketing tactics – tactics which had been mostly adopted very rapidly by the streets, in a very particular way. I was curious as to why that was. It happens every now and again – look at Red Bull. There are certain products which are vast but feel really local and tiny and narrow. So it was trying to understand that: why a vast corporate machine produced a drink that felt like it was, for a moment, hip-hop.”

Stephen Armstrong is a journalist and author who wrote for The Face from 1992 until its final issue. He now writes for The Sunday Times and Wired, and appears on Radio 4 and Sky Arts – thanks, in large part, to his work for The Face. Inevitably he has a screenplay in development, where he confidently expects it to remain.

It’s orange. It’s mainly sugar and water. It outsells Coke in supermarkets. Sunny Delight is the marketing success of the decade. Haven’t tried it yet? Don’t worry. You will…

During the past ten years, UK soft drink consumption has jumped up by 50 per cent, reaching a retail value of £6.7 billion. Since 1990, the major soft drink companies have each launched up to five new products a year.

First of all there’s the name. Sunny Delight. Two bright, optimistic words put lovingly together by a company that cares. Sunny, according to Collins Thesaurus, is a synonym for radiant, blithe, buoyant, joyful and smiling. Delight, the book says, can mean ecstasy, enjoyment, gratification, rapture and gladness. When two such powers join together you get a phrase that means both everything and nothing. Sunny Delight. It could be a rest home or a cereal or a Sixties pop star or a fabric conditioner. What it is, of course, is a drink. Sunny Delight was launched in the UK in April of this year by the corporate behemoth Procter & Gamble. The company aims it at kids and mums, but so far it looks like everyone is drinking it – from kids on school holiday to street-crawling youths caught in Britain’s Summer urban stickiness, from building-site workers to parched desk-jockeys escaping air-conditioned offices. That’s Sunny Delight: pure, fun, healthy refreshment. After five years building the Sunny Delight plant in Bridgewater in Somerset, and two years’ test-marketing in Carlisle, within a month the drink was outselling Coca-Cola in supermarkets.

Sunny Delight is an import from America, where it has been on the shelves since 1968. There it is just” a kids’ drink, part of the snack vocabulary and cultural landscape. Kids call it Sunny D, like a cartoon rapper or a mate’s nickname – hip verbal contraction that has also been used in the brand’s British TV advertising. This is the beverage the UK’s drinks industry already describes as a phenomenon, saying it will change the nature of soft drinks forever. P&G describes it as a vitamin enriched beverage”, with the ingredients listed as water, sucrose, fruit juice, citric acid, vegetable oil, emulsifier, thickener, potassium sorbate and dimethyl dicarbonate. It also has an additive that Britain’s Food Commission has never seen before, something called starchsodiumoctensylsuccinate. Crucially, the fruit juice content of this potion is just 5 per cent. But each 500ml serving contains more sugar than a can of Coke: ten teaspoons.

How, then, is this outwardly-uninspiring mix proving such a threat to Coca-Cola? Mainly because of the complex game of Let’s Pretend which dominates the world of food and drinks.

Behind Sunny Delight is one of the most sophisticated marketing operations the world has ever seen. Procter & Gamble is vast. Based in Cincinnati, it’s the world’s largest FMCG company – this is adspeak for Fast Moving Consumer Goods. For P&G that means Old Spice, Insignia, Cover Girl, Ariel, Bold, Daz, Dreft, Fairy Liquid, Bounce fabric conditioner, Flash, Noxema shaving cream, Lenor, Pampers, Pringles, Max Factor, Biactol, Camay, Clearasil, Crest toothpaste, Head & Shoulders, OiI of Ulay, Mandate, Pantene hair products, Pepto-Bismol, Vicks, Vidal Sassoon hair products, Milton Sterilising Fluid and Zest soap.

Managing such a disparate range of products requires a tightly controlled marketing strategy. This control even extends down through the corporate structure. According to Alice Swasy’s book Soap Opera: The Inside Story Of Procter & Gamble, at P&G there is a company policy on memos. Every memo within the company has to be on a single side of A4, double-spaced, or it is returned to you. Without corrections. Send out another rule-breaking memo and you may regret it. You can be fired for talking to the press without permission, even if you only work for a company that works with P&G. At P&G there are rules for making adverts. These include the number of seconds you can show deodorant being sprayed on to the body. This is the length of time that research says consumers prefer. It is this company that calls its product Sunny Delight.

Sunny Delight’s label is actually a celebration of the unreal”

The highly structured world of Procter & Gamble can be seen in the bright and breezy advertising-by-numbers campaign that backed this launch. Kids run in from school and aim straight for the fridge. We see the manchild pass over the bottle of cola and seem disappointed for a fraction of a second. Suddenly: joy! He sees the Sunny Delight. He grabs the bottle and he and his mates sup together, praising it to the heavens, glorying in the sun-drenched joy of life epitomised by this drink. Eventually, they run out of the stuff – but no, it’s OK, mum arrives with a new bottle! As she walks off, she receives the ultimate accolade. One boy turns to her son and says: She’s alright, your mum…”

If you’re a mum, there’s all the pressure you need in that ad. The pressure to raise your kid’s status with his mates, the pressure to raise your status with your kids, and the pressure to keep your child healthy. Crucially, too, the 1.5‑litre cartons are stacked in supermarkets next to the breakfast juices rather than the big bottles of cola and are aggressively priced against these other premium fruit juices vying for mum’s” money. It will stay drinkable for five days after opening. It doesn’t have to be kept in the fridge. It is the perfect drink for the busy, thirsty, cost-conscious, domestic-peace-loving household.

The carton that Sunny Delight comes in explodes with the sort of symbols we associate with fruit juices. The warm orange colours, plastic container and garish lid all cry juice!”, but nowhere does the word juice” appear. Indeed, Sunny Delight also has the most cunningly crafted label you’ve ever seen. Sunny Delight’s label is actually a celebration of the unreal. It doesn’t sell itself as a drink or a juice. It calls itself a beverage”. It doesn’t say it’s from Florida or California. It says it’s Florida or California Style. It won’t even use the word fruit”, preferring instead to employ the phrase citrus taste”.

Sunny Delight is available in six flavours, two of them orange-based. These two great orange tastes… have a unique blend of Orange, Tangerine and Lime [their capitals],” say Sunny Delight Customer Services in a leaflet that probably dropped through your letterbox in July. But Florida Style has a tangy taste”, California either a smooth” or soft taste”. Together, this is the great stuff that kids go for!” All this, of course, is underpinned by the vitamin enrichment to give an overpowering impression of health… without actually saying anything about health.

The Sunny Delight carton is, in short, a semiotic masterpiece. This has, understandably, raised a few eyebrows.

Richard Robinson, who follows trends in the soft drink market for marketing consultancy Datamonitor, believes Sunny Delight’s marketing-led profile follows a precarious logic.

Shortly after Sunny Delight was launched, the Food Commission published a report which said that half-a-litre of Sunny Delight gave kids more than the recommended dose of sugar,” he says. What Procter & Gamble did at that point is interesting. They said people were buying Sunny Delight as well as fruit juices, not instead of them. If that is true then Sunny Delight is eating into the fizzy drink market, which will bring it face to face with Coca-Cola,” argues Robinson. And no one has yet managed to beat Coca-Cola in a marketing war.”

If that isn’t true, it means that parents are buying Sunny Delight believing it to be a health drink. And, inevitably, they’ll find Procter & Gamble out and probably feel betrayed. At that point, the drink is going to face some difficulties.” Either way, Sunny Delight is in for a challenging few months.

Sunny Delight is playing for high stakes. In the UK, there is so much money to be made from selling soft drinks that it defies the imagination. Here are some incomprehensible numbers. During the past ten years, UK soft drink consumption has jumped by 50 per cent, from seven billion litres in 1987 to well over ten billion litres last year, reaching a retail value of some £6.7 billion.

Breaking this down, market research specialists Mintel say that in 1997 we spent £419 million on buying energy and sports drinks – stuff like Red Bull and Lucozade – and it’s a tiny part of the market. In 1996, 110 million litres of sports drinks were sold compared to 625 million litres of bottled water; 1.3 billion litres of fruit juice and juice drinks (eg Snapple, Oasis); 2.7 billion litres of squash; and 4.7 billion litres of the daddy of them all: fizzy drinks.

That works out at 159 litres of soft drinks for every man, woman and child in the country. Soft drinks now comprise one-quarter of all the liquid that we drink, including tap water, tea, coffee and alcohol. Since 1991, tea in particular has been in serious decline – hence the desperate struggle for innovation by the tea companies, from Tetley’s round bag in 1989, the instant tea granule in 1991, and PG Tips’ Pyramid® tea bag from last year. After overtaking coffee, beer and milk at the end of the Eighties, soft drinks are now challenging tea as the nation’s favourite drinks.

Since 1990, the UK’s major 20 to 30 drinks companies, from Coca-Cola through SmithKline Beecham (which makes Lucozade, Ribena and, er, anti-diarrhoea tablet Diocalm) to Schweppes have each launched up to five drink products a year. One of the newest is this summer’s Ribena Twist. This is tagged Water With A Twist”. Isn’t this like saying this is very, very diluted fizzy Ribena that’s gone a bit flat”? Or is that too cynical? Another fresh face in your newsagent’s chill cabinet is Tizer Ice. This tastes cool because of, drinks industry observers say, the menthol. This is just like being on holiday in, say, St Moritz and drawing deep from the clear, revitalising mountain air. Obviously.

Most of these launches have failed spectacularly. Remember Tab Clear? Launched in February 1993, Coca-Cola spent £10 million on its marketing in the first year. It was the drink sensation of that spring, selling millions of litres. Now? Off the shelves forever. And Outspan’s juice drink range, buoyed up by a £2 million marketing budget in 1992? Off the shelf a year later.

This is small change, though, compared to Procter & Gamble’s investment in launching Sunny Delight in Britain: £12 million on building the Sunny Delight plant in Somerset, and £10 million on advertising the drink this year alone.

Bizarrely, this boom in water flavoured with sugar, vegetables and chemicals appears to be driven by health concerns. For example, while fizzy drink sales have been on the up since 1992, two-thirds of the increase is due to the boom in diet drinks. And since 1992, the market for sports and health drinks has increased by 67 per cent. In fact, there wasn’t really a sport and health drinks market in the UK at all until 1994. Before then, there was just Lucozade, and that had been launched in 1927. But since 1994 there has been a sport drinks market, a glucose-energy drinks market, and a high-energy stimulation drinks market.

Alongside the health drinks, there’s the so-called adult drink market”. This includes Snapple, Oasis, Mountain Dew and Aqua Libra. This sector is barely a decade old, its creation a direct response to young consumers’ move away from alcohol – a shift that was prompted by a range of factors, from a greater interest in healthier eating and drinking to sterner drink-driving laws and increasing use of drugs like Ecstasy. Hence the fact that only 30 per cent of pensioners have ever bought any of these drinks, while over 85 per cent of people aged between 15 and 24 buy them on a regular basis. By 1997, this combined adult and sport/​health drink market was worth £270 million in the UK, up 344 per cent since 1992.

The whole phenomenon of health” drinks is part of a new trend that the Americans are calling Nutraceuticals or Food Plus, where drugs companies and food companies get together to offer food and drink as medicine”. No longer are the things you eat and drink simply fuel for your biochemistry. Now they actually have medicinal effects, via nutrients, salt balance, essential minerals and, of course, vitamins. And that’s just what Sunny Delight shouts from the label. Vitamins.

Sunny Delight is the first mass-market Nutraceutical to hit these shores, although it will no doubt be joined by a host of imitators. Why not? There’s so much money to be made.

Of course, Sunny Delight is a piece of marketing and advertising genius. Sugar, water, a hint of fruit and a texture that is smooth (or soft, or tangy) on the palate. It tells us it’s got vitamins, it looks good and healthy and, well, we’d prefer not to know it’s made by the people who make Ariel Automatic. Or that it’s some imported American staple (another one). Or that it’s not much healthier than a can of cola. We want to believe. The soft drinks industry expects us to keep on buying. Sometimes, we prefer to be fooled. Just as long as it tastes nice.

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