Innovation is a much banded-about word in the world of soft drinks. And nobody likes to bang on more about innovation than The Coca-Cola Co. The company's global strength and leading status stems from one drink - classic Coca-Cola - yet every new cola variant is still heralded as being innovative, claims Annette Farr.

In 2006 Coca-Cola Black Cherry Vanilla and a Diet Coke Black Cherry Vanilla were simultaneously launched in Canada. "Our innovative fusion of real cola, luscious black cherry and smooth vanilla flavours create a taste that is complex and delicious," says Ishita Saha brand manager.

When the coffee fusion cola Coca-Cola Blak was introduced in North America, Katie Bayne, senior vice-president Coca-Cola brands CCNA, said it was "the latest example of the kind of innovation we are delivering to meet the changing needs of our consumers".

In New Zealand, Coca-Cola added raspberry to its classic and diet drinks and launched them as Coca-Cola innovations. Diet Coke with Lemon was proclaimed the company's most innovative NPD yet by an enthusiastic Coke marketing team at its UK launch in 2005. Lime and cherry variants followed in 2006, and then vanilla.

Adding new flavours is not innovation. Extending the range of an established brand simply offers consumers more choice. Few new flavours have survived the hype of their launch. In the UK, Coca-Cola Enterprises' cola portfolio today consists of: diet Coke, classic Coke, Coke Zero and Coca-Cola Cherry. Consumers, it seems, do not want their classic Coca-Cola interfered with.

Perhaps the most famous failure, though, was TAB Clear, Coca-Cola's contribution to the short-lived clear colas category in 1992. Introduced in the US, the UK and Japan, the brand survived less than a year before it was pulled. A clear cola? No thank you!

Now Coca-Cola has created media excitement with the news that it is test marketing a drink in the US called Vio, which has been created in its own laboratories. The drink contains skimmed milk mixed with sparkling water, flavoured with fruit and sweetened with cane sugar. There are four flavours: Citrus Burst, Peach Mango, Tropical Colada and Very Berry. It is being sold in 8oz aluminium bottles and, with no artificial flavours, preservatives or sweeteners, Vio is said to provide 15% of recommended daily intakes of calcium and vitamin C.

The drink is part of a wider company initiative called Project Life and, if successful in the US, Vio could be launched globally.

Will it work? Not if the UK' s Britvic Soft Drinks' experience is anything to go by. In 2003, Britvic launched a drink aimed at tweens (10-13 year olds) called Freekee Soda in two flavours, Strange Strawberry and Odd Orange. It took three years to develop the beverage, a carbonated combination of 7% real fruit juice and 4% skimmed milk, creating a sub-category which Britvic named 'texture-based fizz'. The company invested GBP6.3m (US$10.4m) in the drink's launch.

Despite pouring millions of pounds into its development and marketing - and later providing a new lease of life by renaming it Tango Strange Soda (following legal problems over the use of the word 'freekee') - the sad fact was that it didn't gain acceptance - by either its originally-targeted tween consumers or by established Tango lovers. The company had hoped its new drink would appeal to both, banking on the taste and carbonated sensation of the drink and the fact that it contained 4% skimmed milk and thus was a source of 'good-for-you' calcium. But, as a Britvic spokesperson says, "it was too challenging for consumers at the time."

A further attempt at a dairy and juice combo was made by Britvic with a new addition to its squash range called Robinsons for Milk, a dilutable for milk, containing 10% fruit juice to create fruity milk drinks. Launched in 2004, and aimed at children aged 3 to 12, the product has since been withdrawn.

Britvic is a company which has proved itself to be a true innovator. Some ideas work, like J20, and some don't, like Freekee Soda. But the company is prepared to put its head above the parapet and take a risk. Coca-Cola is more guarded, seemingly happier to follow trends rather than pioneer them. Few in its portfolio of beverage brands are completely new categories of drinks which the company has developed in its own laboratories, having first identified a gap in the marketplace and invested time and money in bringing to market. Indeed, some of the most successful niche and truly innovative Coca-Cola brands are those which the company has acquired, a recent example being Glaceau Vitaminwater.

Time will tell whether Vio will be Coke's next real thing. But, at least, it is heartening to see the company develop a new concept which, for once, lives up to the 'innovative' description.