Coca-Cola Japan believes its Coca-Cola Plus product will appeal to older consumers

Coca-Cola Japan believes its Coca-Cola Plus product will appeal to older consumers

The future of carbonated soft drink innovation may be closer than we think. The Japanese debut next month of Coca-Cola Plus – a fibre-enriched, fat-blocking, calorie-free soft drink – could be a sign of a shifting mindset among CSD companies away from removing the 'bad stuff' to adding more of the 'good stuff'.

In sports, the adage "the best form of defence is to attack" has often been proven at the championship level. The CSD market seems to have developed a similar approach, with expanding interest in healthier soft drinks. Coca-Cola Japan's new Coca-Cola Plus is fortified with indigestible dextrin – a source of dietary fibre that provides unusual health properties for a CSD. When consumed with food, it helps suppress fat absorption by the body while moderating levels of triglycerides in the blood from eating. The drink creates a potential win for the wider CSD segment by securing usage occasions where water, coffee, or tea have previously ruled supreme. The concept may even be a guilt-reducer for fast-food lovers that crave the taste but not the consequences of fast food consumption.

Health benefits

According to Coca-Cola Japan, consumption of one 47cl bottle (which contains five grams of indigestible dextrin) of zero-calorie Coca-Cola Plus per day with food can reduce blood triglyceride levels by 7%, compared to what they would ordinarily be if a traditional diet cola was consumed instead. The product is the first Coca-Cola branded soft drink to be approved under Japan's "Food for Specified Health Use (FOSHU)." FOSHU products may claim to offer specific health benefits, but they are not subject to the more rigorous testing required for a product claiming to be a true "health food." 

Coca-Cola reportedly spent more than a decade of research and development on Coca-Cola Plus, no doubt some of that trying to determine why the launch of a similar product under the same name in 2010 failed. That version of Coca-Cola Plus had 1.7 grams of indigestible dextrin per 10cl bottle, about 60% more fibre per serving than the new version of Coca-Cola Plus. The high fibre content reportedly gave the earlier version of Coca-Cola Plus a more jelly-like texture that may have turned off consumers.

The older version of Coca-Cola Plus was also sold in a bottle similar to that used for other versions of Coke - the new version of Coca-Cola Plus is packaged in a white shrink-wrapped bottle that screams "new and different."

On the sweetener front, the new version of Coca-Cola Plus is sweetened with a cocktail of artificial sweeteners including aspartame, L-phenylalanine compound, acesulfame K, and sucralose. This seems to fly in the face of growing clean label ingredient concerns.

Age matters

There is no question that carbonated soft drinks need a new catalyst for growth. Per capita consumption of CSDs globally has flat-lined and is not expected to change at all between 2014 and 2018. This may pass for good news for the much-beleaguered sector, since flat growth is better than a decline, but the absence of growth stands out compared to other drink sectors. Per capita consumption of packaged water (excluding enhanced water and flavoured water) is expected to increase 19.9% over the same period. Per capita consumption of non-alcoholic drinks overall is projected to increase 7.2% from 2014 to 2018. Simply treading water is not going to cut it for carbonated soft drink manufacturers.   

Outside of chronic health issues like obesity and type 2 diabetes, ageing global populations rank as another major worry for CSD manufacturers. No country's population is older than Japan's. The median age in Japan was 46.5 years in 2015, considerably older than the world median age of 29.6 years. Between 2010 and 2015, Japan's population actually fell by 1m people – the beginning of a long-term population slide expected to see Japan lose 20m people by the year 2050, according to data from the UN. Coca-Cola could not have picked a better country to test new ways to reverse consumption declines among middle-age and older consumers: The official target for Coca-Cola Plus is consumers aged 40 and older.

The question, then, is whether consumers really care about specific functional claims for carbonated soft drinks. Time will tell, of course, but survey results from GlobalData suggest that fibre has appeal that grows with age. According to a Q4 2016 GlobalData global consumer survey, 43% of consumers globally say that the claim "high in fibre" is very appealing for a food or drink, a figure that rises from a low of 35% for 18-24 year-olds to a peak of 48% for 55-64 year-old consumers.

Solid appeal for specific functional ingredients may not be enough to turn consumers into buyers, however. The older a consumer is, the less willing they are to try a new or different functional drink. Just 8% of over-65s and 12% of 55-64 year-olds globally say they "often" try new or different varieties of drinks that deliver a specific health benefit. That is much lower than the 20% figure for 25-34 year-olds, according to a Q3 2016 GlobalData survey. Concern about weight issues also ebbs with age. The same GlobalData survey found that nearly twice as many over-65s consumers were not doing anything regarding their weight than 25-34 year-olds. In Japan, at least, Coca-Cola maintains that older consumers are driving growth in the country's FOSHU beverages, which are led by tea, with cola soft drinks second in importance.

Beyond Japan

Coca-Cola Plus is not the first, and is unlikely to be the last, fat-blocking drink in Japan. Beverage-makers have been introducing soft drinks fortified with indigestible dextrin in Japan for nearly 20 years, although CSDs came well after ready-to-drink teas. Coca-Cola may not have enjoyed success the first time around with Coca-Cola Plus, but later launches suggest that the fibre-enhanced soft drink concept may have staying power. The launch of Kirin Mets functional cola drink in 2012 and Pepsi Special functional cola drink in 2013 helped the idea gain a foothold. Kirin had enough faith in indigestible dextrin fortification that it extended the concept to bottled water with Kirin Mets Plus sparkling water in 2016. It remains to be seen, however, if other national markets show as much enthusiasm for fat-blocking drinks as Japan apparently does.

The soft drinks trends shaping the year ahead - Research in Focus

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