Coca-Cola widened its lead versus Pepsi in cola wars last year, report says

Credit: Justin Sullivan

Credit: Justin Sullivan

Coca-Cola Co. widened its lead against archrival PepsiCo last year in their decadeslong battle for U.S. soda drinkers, according to a closely watched report.

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In a positive sign for both companies, though, U.S. volumes of carbonated soft drinks barely dipped in 2018 after more than a decade of steeper declines, industry tracker Beverage Digest reported Wednesday.

PepsiCo’s four biggest soda brands — Pepsi-Cola, Mountain Dew, Diet Mountain Dew and Diet Pepsi — all lost market share in volume terms.

Coca-Cola’s flagship full-calorie cola had flat volumes and its leading 17.8% share of U.S. soda volumes remained unchanged. Diet Coke’s market share dipped slightly, but Coke Zero Sugar and Sprite gained share.

Overall, U.S. carbonated soft drink volumes dipped 0.1%, the smallest decline in 14 years. The decline would have been larger if it hadn’t been for energy drinks like Monster and Red Bull, which continue to post growth.

Another good sign for the soda industry -- if not consumers: Prices for carbonated soft drinks rose 3.4% last year, more than the 2.6% increase in 2017, Beverage Digest estimated. Coke led the charge, helping lift overall soda sales in dollar terms.

"Coke has strong pricing power right now," said Duane Stanford, Beverage Digest's executive editor. "They have a very strong market share. They took a price increase earlier last year than usual and they got good growth from brands like Coke Zero Sugar."

But he also cited slower declines for its main rival compared to 2017. “PepsiCo showed signs that increased marketing and advertising spend for core brands Pepsi, Dew and Gatorade could work to gain share lost to Coke in recent years,” said Stanford.

The rivalry between the beverage giants revved up earlier this year during the Super Bowl in Atlanta. Pepsi unrolled a wave of blue advertising in Coke's hometown and took over space near the vacant former site of the World of Coca-Cola.

Both companies have bigger problems than just each other. They’ve wrestled for years with U.S. consumers’ fading affections for traditional soft drinks, calories and artificial sweeteners. Coca-Cola and PepsiCo each raced to buy or concoct other drinks.

Although the declines in consumption leveled off last year, Stanford said it might take another year to see whether consumers truly have hit what he called a new normal.

Carbonated soft drinks remains by far the largest U.S. beverage category measured by dollar sales, even as more Americans turn to alternatives like bottled water and sports drinks.

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