ANALYSIS: (Coca-Cola) Blak to the drawing-board
The withdrawal of Coca-Cola's Blak brand from the US has once again shown that new product development can be something of a hit and miss affair, even for the most powerful and experienced companies. Blak clearly did not take off with US consumers but, writes Annette Farr, in today's market drinks companies may have to accept that flavours and concepts will have a limited shelf life, making constant innovation all the more vital.
Two years ago, The Coca-Cola Company registered three potential brand names for a radical new coffee-flavoured soda it was developing: Makkio, Maquio and Blak. Blak survived the name selection process but has failed to survive the test of public opinion in the US. The coffee/cola fusion drink, first launched in France in January 2006 followed by the US and Canada later that year, is being withdrawn from the US market.
The company's US bottlers will continue producing the brand until concentrate supplies run out. Meanwhile, Coke will continue to market Blak in France, Spain, Czech Republic, where it was launched in February this year, and Canada.
At the brand's launch in France, Marc Matieu, vice-president Global Core Brands, said Blak was "ideal for any part of the day when people are looking for renewed energy or simply taking a break". The beverage was aimed at the sophisticated adult consumer.
Despite the two years invested in developing the drink, and Coke's enviable distribution and marketing network, Blak has failed to appeal to the US consumer.
Like most of the new drinks that Coke brings to market, Blak's recipe was tweaked to cater for differing consumer palates worldwide. The US version is sweetened by a cocktail of high fructose corn syrup, aspartame and acesulfame potassium, whereas the French and Canadian versions are sweetened with sugar. These are considered to deliver a less sweet, more robust coffee flavour.
Coffee colas were always going to be a niche market, but one that Coca-Cola entered at a time of enthusiastic new product development. Neville Isdell in autumn 2004 had announced that Coke was going to boost the pace of new product development in response to changing consumer lifestyles which called for the right drink for the right occasion.
Rival Pepsi had already developed and test-marketed Pepsi Kona in Pennsylvania in the mid-1990s. Despite Kona's subsequent withdrawal, Pepsi has led the way in amassing a portfolio of coffee-flavoured colas, such as Pepsi Cappuccino, Pepsi Cino, Pepsi Kaffe, Pepsi Latte, Pepsi Cade Da and Pepsi Max Cappuccino, for its international markets.
Pepsi Max Cino was launched in the UK in January 2006, but is no longer available. Distributor Britvic Soft Drinks explained: "As with the majority of flavoured variant innovation in the cola category, Pepsi Max Cino was launched to excite consumers and drive short-term uplift in the category. It was successful in achieving these objectives."
It has been suggested that taste is behind Blak's demise. "It is not for everyone," Coke marketing executive Katie Bayne told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution when the drink was launched in April 2006. "It is an adult cola taste."
During a sampling campaign coinciding with the launch of Blak in Canada, one participant, James Forrester, was reported as saying: ''It's kind of syrupy, to tell you the truth. Maybe I'm a traditionalist, but I think when you start messing around with formulas that have been around for 80 years or whatnot, you always do that at your peril.''
What young sophisticated adult consumers are looking for these days are drinks that are healthy, taste good, and deliver on the ethical and sustainable front, attributes for which they are prepared to pay a premium.
JavaPop, for example, has created a range of organic, fairtrade coffee sodas, which are 100% natural and sweetened with organically certified pure cane juice.
Founder and president Paul C. Hendler began developing the product in 2004, seeking out fairtrade-certified coffee growers, organic natural flavours, and recycled packaging materials. As a result, each of JavaPop's five varieties (Espresso, Vanilla, Mocha, Hazelnut, and Caramel) can claim sound environmental credentials.
Coca-Cola has, however, conquered the coffee soft drink category in Japan with a ready-to-drink canned coffee called Georgia. Ironically, it is not sold in the state of Georgia or, indeed, anywhere else in the US.
Introduced in Japan as long ago as 1975, the drink now leads the market. It is available in a number of flavours, including Almond Coffee Milk, Chocolate Coffee Milk, Cinnamon Coffee Milk, Coffee Milk Vanilla, Coffee Soy Milk and Guaraná Coffee, and has extended its presence beyond Japan to include Bahrain and India.
The launch of Caribou Coffee in Midwest and South East cities could turn around Coca-Cola's coffee fortunes in the US. Announced days before Blak was pulled, this iced coffee drink is being rolled out in association with Caribou Coffee, the second largest coffee company in the US. The organisation has 480 coffee houses located in 18 states and the District of Columbia.
"The new beverage will expand the reach of the Caribou Coffee tradition and bring the simple, everyday values of the Caribou coffeehouse experience to a broader national audience," said Michael Coles, Caribou Coffee chairman and CEO. "Our partnership with Coca-Cola North America will extend our great premium coffee taste experience into the ready-to-drink category and allow us to take advantage of the world-class Coca-Cola distribution system."
It is Coca-Cola's distribution system which gives the company such an edge in bringing new products to market. There are always going to be winners and losers, and it would seem that caffeine-laced Blak, with its medley of artificial sweeteners, has not chimed with America's increasingly health-conscious sophisticated consumer.
But Tom Vierhile, director of Datamonitor's New York-based Productscan Online database, is not surprised that these products, which in some ways can be seen as 'limited editions', have a relatively short shelf-life. "These drum up interest among consumers and keep things interesting. It is not unusual to see these flavours come and go, so it is not surprising to me that Coke Blak is being pulled. It is probably more surprising that Coke may have seen this as a permanent addition to its line when consumers may have thought otherwise."
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