CATALYST: Coca-Cola has announced accelerated plans for the UK launch of Vanilla Coke.

Launched in the US last year, Vanilla Coke has been one of Coca-Cola's biggest successes in many a long year. But Coke appears to have missed its moment to launch the product in the UK. Seen alongside falling sales of Classic Coke, the lost opportunity highlights Coke's troubles in the carbonated drinks market.

Vanilla Coke will officially hit Britain's shops earlier than expected - but only because, unofficially, it has already arrived. Having launched in the US last year, the product is already available for savvy independent retailers who import on the grey market.

Vanilla Coke is an important initiative for Coke, not least because it marks the brand's first UK product launch since New Coke in 1985. That venture was not a success - so much so that many would say Vanilla Coke can only do better.

However, there are several obstacles standing in its way. For one, the steady trickle of Vanilla Coke into the country's independent retailers is stealing the product's thunder and undermining Coke's opportunity to make a splash with its official launch. Coca-Cola refuses to make any statement about the grey market but the fact that it has massively adjusted launch schedule speaks volumes.

Meanwhile, Virgin Cola, spotting the success of Vanilla Coke in the US, has used the delay between the US and UK launches to bring out its own Vanilla Cola. Launched in December, the product will soon be available from major retailers, providing competition for Vanilla Coke.

Having lost the initiative, Coca-Cola will be forced to launch Vanilla Coke from a weakened position. Consumers have been exposed to the product without any of the branding messages that help identify target markets and stimulate demand, and a rival product with similar marketing and distribution clout will be in the market ahead of it.

Coke also plans a new campaign for Classic Coke, based on its recent US campaign using the slogan "Coca-Cola Real," its first since the ill-fated "Life Tastes Good" campaign. But sales of Classic Coke fell 2% in 2001, something unthinkable only a few years ago. That fact, together with the missed opportunity to launch Vanilla in the UK, underlines Coke's weakening grip on the carbonated drinks market.

Related Research: Datamonitor, "The European Soft Drinks Market to 2006" (DMCM0351)