Japan’s "summer of clear" tests the conventional wisdom on beverage colours - NPD trends

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A burst of clear-coloured beverage innovation in Japan this summer is challenging the traditional role of colour in beverage innovation, potentially providing new insights into the role colour plays in beverage choice. The conventional wisdom is that colour strongly affects the perceived taste and flavour of a beverage. Removing colour can be both disruptive and attention grabbing, but can violating colour-flavour norms really be a path to success in beverage innovation?

Coca-Cola Clear launched in Japan last month

Coca-Cola Clear launched in Japan last month

This warning appears to have fallen on deaf ears in Japan where beverage innovators have been rushing to remove colour from a wide range of drinks to capitalise on the key summer sales season and tap the clean label trend. Japan's most recent clear drink fad began in 2017 when Suntory launched Tennensui Premium Morning Tea, a lemon flavoured ready-to-drink tea that looks like bottled water and will not stain the teeth.A quartet of presenters at July's Institute of Food Technologists (IFT) conference and trade show in Chicago offered insights into colour-flavour interaction in new product development that seem timely given a flurry of clear beverage innovation in Japan. The central theme of the session was that colour matters for food and beverage more than most people realise, and that colour is an attribute that is loaded with meaning. Removing colour may shock or surprise, but it can also strip vital flavour and fragrance cues from a product, leading to potentially erroneous assumptions.

Suntory followed that launch up with another groundbreaking clear drink in 2018: All Free All Time non-alcoholic beverage. Positioned as the world's first transparent non-alcoholic beer, All Free All Time is highly carbonated, with a faint taste
of beer in a drink that is packaged and positioned more like a soft drink than the typical non-alcoholic beer. Indeed, package graphics suggest that the drink be consumed after sports or exercise, and even during a meeting – unusual consumption occasions for non-alcoholic beer.

Even regular beer is going "clear" in Japan. In late-June, Asahi Breweries announced a four store test for Clearcraft low-malt beer that is scheduled to run through 1 August. Offered on draught only, Clearcraft is a "new genre" beer made with selected raw materials that do not give beer its traditional amber colour. Asahi expects the drink will offer a "cool impression of refreshing taste" for an "unprecedented surprise" during the peak beer selling season.

This is not Asahi's first go around with clear beverages. Earlier this summer, Asahi launched Clear Latte, a clear espresso and milk drink that looks every bit like bottled water, but tastes like sweet iced coffee. Package text says the drink "has the aroma of an espresso and a mature, startling sweetness that lingers after each sip." That sweetness does come at a calorie cost – relative to water – as each 60cl bottle has 60 calories.

Carbonated soft drink brands are also going clear in Japan. Coca-Cola recently launched Coca-Cola Clear, a calorie-free drink lightly flavoured with lemon. The latter may come as a surprise to consumers seeing the Coca-Cola brand name and expecting a cola flavoured drink. Coca-Cola reportedly spent a year developing the product.

Nostalgia and shock value

To American eyes, Japan's flirtation with clear-coloured beverages looks like a throwback to the mid-1990s, which produced soft drink innovations like Tab Clear and Crystal Pepsi as well as clear alcoholic beverages like Zima and Miller Clear Beer in the US. Sadly, none of these launches failed to stick around long-term, though Crystal Pepsi and Zima both returned a year ago for a limited time run for nostalgia's sake. Nostalgia can exert a strong pull on consumers. Two-thirds of MillerCoors' inventory of Zima was sold within its first four weeks in the market in 2017, encouraging the company to re-launch Zima for another limited-time run this summer.

"If the colour is 'wrong,' people tend to like the flavour less"

Nostalgia and shock value may not be enough to sustain the clear-coloured beverage concept over the long haul, though. Colour alters the perception of flavour, a factor that multiple IFT speakers stressed in a recent educational session on colour-flavour interaction in new product development. "The colour red seems to cause people to perceive that products are sweeter," said Debra Zellner, PhD of Montclair State University, a speaker at the IFT session. "If the colour is 'wrong,' people tend to like the flavour less," she added; an observation especially relevant for clear beverage innovations like beer and coffee.

Some degree of Pavlovian conditioning is associated with food and beverage colour too, influencing taste, flavour, and fragrance perceptions. According to Dr Zellner, people tend to connect colour and odour. This association is so strong that colour can begin to "elicit an odour," even if none exists. Just the cue provided by product colour can trick a consumer into thinking a product smells a certain way. This is crucial since much of what a consumer perceives as taste actually comes from the odour or scent of a product.

The colour phenomenon 

Colour is an especially important attribute in the supermarket. "97% of the time, colour is associated with flavour [for food or drinks sold] in a supermarket," commented Lawrence Garber, an associate professor of marketing at Elon University who also presented at the IFT session on colour-flavour interaction. "Colour is a relative phenomenon" he added, which affects how we process what it means. In consumer testing, Garber added that clear drinks are perceived by consumers to be more natural, but also more expensive. He noted that "flavours can seem too strong based on [their] clear colour," a factor which complicates flavour development for clear beverages.

Clear can force consumers to play a guessing game when it comes to flavour. If the colour and flavour of a product are a mismatch, consumers will often guess a flavour that is congruent with the colour of a product, according to Dr Zellner. If that guess turns out to be wrong, it can negatively impact product liking. This factor is believed to have played a large part in the failure of Crystal Pepsi in the 1990s. Consumers groomed since birth to believe cola has to be dark brown didn't know what to make of a clear drink professing to be a cola. A clear colour suggests a flavour like lemon-lime, not cola. The flavour of Crystal Pepsi was not close enough to cola, or to lemon-lime. Remarkably, Coca-Cola Clear in Japan is playing a similar flavour game. Will it work out this time around? Time will tell.

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