From consumers stockpiling Irn Bru to criticisms of Ribena for “sneakily” ruining its taste by reducing sugar, soft drink brands have been on a bit of a roller coaster ever since former chancellor George Osborne unveiled the ‘sugar tax’ in 2016.

Officially called the Soft Drinks Industry Levy (SDIL), it comes into effect tomorrow (6 April) and will force soft drinks companies to pay a charge for added sugar. Under the two-band system, drinks that contain 5g of sugar or more per 100ml will becharged 18p per litre, whole those with 8g of sugar or more per 100ml will be charged 24p. This means a 330ml can of Coca Cola or Pepsi will cost 8p more, and Sprite and Fanta 6p more.

When the levy was first announced, soft drink brands hit out at being the scapegoat for obesity. However, there have been unintended upsides as the industry has innovated with new products, updated recipes and different approaches to marketing.

Sparking innovation and going premium

cawston press

Helen Pomphrey, head of marketing at Cawston Press, believes the sugar levy has truly benefited the sector. “There hasn’t been a lot of real, genuine innovation in soft drinks. Products like coffee, beer and crisps all have premium products, but soft drinks never really had that,” she explains.

Cawston Press has reformulated the recipe in many of its drinks in a move Pomphrey says has made its products more like craft soft drinks and actually improved the taste. The company chose to get rid of added sugar and up the amount of fruit juice, rather than adding artificial sweeteners to try to reduce the sugar content.

Pomphrey adds: “We were already very proud of our drinks but I think it has encouraged us to go back and look and make sure we are offering consumers the very best products.”

The levy has also caused some of the biggest brands in the sector to look to innovation and new products. Coca-Cola is releasing three new soft drinks this year: ice tea brand Fuzetea, ready-to-drink cold coffee Honest Coffee, and dairy-alternative smoothies brand AdeZ. Coca-Cola has also looked to improved classics, with 2017 seeing the company unveil a new Fanta — rolling out new packaging and slashing the sugar content in a bid to combat the levy.

A marketing push and investment in its zero-sugar options has led to Diet Coke and Coca-Cola Zero Sugar combined outselling Coke Classic in British supermarkets.

“When we launched new Coca-Cola Zero Sugar in 2016, we also launched our biggest ever marketing campaign for a zero-sugar variant. It was well received by our fans and in its first year, Coca-Cola Zero Sugar became the fastest-growing cola on the market,” says Joel Morris, director of corporate affairs at Coca-Cola.

READ MORE: Coke Zero gets £10m revamp as Coca-Cola aligns products behind ‘one brand’ strategy

Britvic has also seen a wave of innovations including Purdey’s, a natural energy drink with juice; and Robinsons Refresh’d and Fruit Cordials.

Gavin Partington, director general of the British Soft Drinks Association, agrees that the levy has led to soft drinks companies looking again at their recipes. “It has sped up the shift towards low- and no-calorie products…