Liquid Thinking

Lilt No More

When is it time to abandon a brand?

15th February 2023

Coca-Cola chose Valentine’s Day to announce the sudden withdrawal of its Lilt brand. On the market for 48 years, Coca-Cola didn’t spike its flavour – which will now appear as part of its Fanta line-up – just the brand. While the announcement sparked both a conversation on its chequered past of cultural appropriation, alongside a hefty wave of nostalgia by those that love it, we ask, when it is time to abandon a brand?

Here comes the Lilt man? Well, not any longer. Coca Cola broke hearts this Valentine’s Day when it announced the axing of its Lilt soft drink brand after nearly 50 years on the market. Viewed with more than a whiff of nostalgia by those that remember the brand’s TV advertising flurry of the 1980s and 90s, it’s not gone completely. Proving that actually, there was a solid product beneath the underinvested in brand, its flavour will live on, incorporated into the top performing Fanta brand.

So why this brand, and why now? When does it make business sense to kill a brand completely? It’s true, that sales haven’t been stellar of late compared to its rivals. But the brand was still considerable. While Lilt achieved sales of £15.6m in 2022, Fantas was as much as 17 times bigger at £281m. 

The internet reacts

And it’s fair to say the reaction to Coca Cola European Partner’s (CCEP) announcement has been considerable, with strong reactions both for and against. There have been pleas on Twitter, think pieces in newspapers, and even petitions to save it. Meanwhile, memes have been created equating the magnitude of the announcement as being similar to the passing of the Queen; Lilt bottles have been depicted holding hands and walking into the sunset with Paddington Bear. Or else, Shakespeare himself musing over its loss. It’s fair to say for those outcrying and mourning its loss, the announcement has been…. emotional. Thoughts and prayers.

But for those taking a slightly different view, the brand was guilty of cultural appropriation at worst, or else profound stereotyping at best. In fact, the brand’s announcement was interesting for what it didn’t say. Martin Attock, CCEP’s GB vice-president of commercial development, said: “Our main priority with this announcement is to reassure Lilt's loyal fanbase that absolutely nothing has changed when it comes to the iconic taste of the drink they know and love. It's still bursting with tangy tropical flavours, it's just got itself a new name.”

Same, same. But different

So why do it? It can be inferred, though not explicitly said, that image regeneration of a brand that indulged and identified itself with cultural tropes about the Caribbean, was not seen as viable. Those laying criticism at its door mainly reference campaigns that are 20-30 years old, depicting black waiters serving beaches of only white sunbathers, all backed by Reggae-esque soundtracks. Where black people did appear, they were depicted more as caricatures, and usually in servitude to white tourists. But in some campaigns set, yes set in the Caribbean, they did not appear at all.

Even its long-running Lilt Ladies campaign which featured two British Jamaican women laughing at the eccentricities of British culture such as ballroom dancing, doesn’t come out to kindly when viewed from today’s more knowing stance. A huge multi-national getting two black women to perform and literally dance for them as an exotic sideshow, is not a good look.

Totally tropical appropriation

It’s not hard to see the ads didn’t age well. Though it seemingly wasn’t clear back then, in these more enlightened times, using cultures – especially underrepresented and persecuted ones – as cultural wallpaper, is clearly not okay. But why couldn’t the brand head in a new direction?

The success of these campaigns and their ubiquity would make erasing these elements of the brand’s past near impossible. In fact, amid all the nostalgic furore surrounding its axing, its worth some introspection on how and why the brand still has such a loyal fanbase. The campaigns that CCEP is now distancing itself from, were clearly engrained in the cultural zeitgeist of the time. Put succinctly, consumers loved them.

Meanwhile, releasing new campaigns that take the brand in a different direction would prompt conversations about where the brand has come from. As is happening now, in fact. If CCEP had hoped that consumers and the media would move swiftly with it to focus on its new Fanta product, forgetting the brand’s ‘totally tropical’ past, they were wrong. Afterall, “It's still bursting with tangy tropical flavours, it's just got itself a new name.” Nothing to see here.

Lilt of course isn’t the only brand with a dubious past when it comes to racial issues. Step forward Malibu, Captain Morgan, and even Coke itself. But having a one-note brand identity so inextricable from its missteps, in this case, seems to have proved fatal. The past, and the brand identity inextricably attached to that, was one note. And it’s just not a note that sounds good anymore.

Lilt is dead. Long live Fanta Pineapple & Grapefruit.

Interested in finding out more about what this might mean for you and your business?

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