Bar Nøne launch proves Coca-Cola is faster - but still not first - Comment

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This week has seen yet another launch in the adult soft drinks category. Another company keen to target moderation trends with a cocktail-style beverage that fits comfortably into on-premise accounts.

Coca-Cola is only selling the Bar Nøne range in the Atlanta area

Coca-Cola is only selling the Bar Nøne range in the Atlanta area

Except this time, the brand owner is not the usual metropolitan startup. This time, through the launch of Bar Nøne, it is Coca-Cola Co targeting alcohol alternatives.

This comes as a surprise. Despite its spread into all corners of the beverage world - kombucha and coffee are just two recent examples - Coca-Cola has traditionally steered clear of an association with alcohol. When the company's creative Japanese division announced a potential alcohol-based RTD last year, Coca-Cola headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia, distanced itself from the news. Caffeine is the biggest buzz you'll get from the world's biggest soft drinks maker.

There are reasons for this. Coca-Cola counts under 16s as a significant customer base. Therefore, for a public company with the profile of Coca-Cola, it is sensible to keep alcohol at arm's length. Meanwhile, some of the world's biggest investors are based in countries where stakes in alcohol companies are off-limits. An alcohol aversion keeps those investors onside.

With the new Bar Nøne, however, Coca-Cola has shown a subtle shift in its attitude to the more mature end of the soft drinks category. In promotional material, Coca-Cola, through its emerging brands unit VEB, talks openly about the adult occasion, the need for consumers to find an alternative to alcohol when they are not drinking. Bar Nøne, with its cocktail-inspired flavours, is there to fill that demand.

Of course, it would be easy to read too much into a single launch from Coca-Cola - especially one that so far is only available in and around Atlanta. Also, a good chunk of Coca-Cola's profits has always come from the on-premise. The group has made a lot of money from the fact that alcohol tastes pretty good when sweetened with soda.

However, Bar Nøne is another sign that Coca-Cola is loosening up its product innovation pipeline and more willing to try new things. In 2017, Coca-Cola launched a record 500 products. It expects the 2018 tally to be even higher. 

Why is this? In 2017, not long after CEO James Quincey took charge, he told investors he wanted Coca-Cola to be more agile with its launches - to take a leaf our of the startup book and adopt a "test-and-learn" attitude. The alpha product, he suggested, might not be perfect but it can be tweaked and modified until a beta, gamma or even omega version gets it right.

Quincey's test-and-learn mantra can be seen as the precursor to Coca-Cola's creative teams dreaming up more ideas, with Bar Nøne being one of them. The brand was pushed through from idea to launch in just ten months, proving Coca-Cola is leaner and faster than before. Bar Nøne's low-key launch will also give the brand team the opportunity to refine the product until ready for a wider roll-out.

Where Coca-Cola has failed, however, is in its insistence that Bar Nøne is opening up a new category. 

"We're a first mover in this space, which we think has a lot of potential," said Bar Nøne general manager Sabrina Tandon.

This is news to the hundreds of beverage entrepreneurs working hard to build their own adult-soft-drink brands - people, incidentally, who aren't lucky enough to have the global resources of the world's biggest soft drinks maker behind them. 

No, Coca-Cola, you are not pioneering the alcohol-alternative category. (Even PepsiCo has sold a Mojito-flavoured 7UP in France since 2014.) What you are doing though, with the Bar Nøne launch, is helping to legitimise the category, and proving that non-alcoholic adult soft drinks are fast becoming socially-accepted.

Because of that, there should be space in there for everyone, both big and small.

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