From sparkling water to peach papaya juice, beverage companies thirsty for market share are bottling a dizzying variety of liquid refreshments. And consumers are drinking it up.


March 11, 1998|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Sun Staff

In the past 10 years, America has become very, very thirsty.

Open today's refrigerator and you'll find it bulging with more bottled beverages than anyone would have dreamed possible a few years ago. The new products just keep on coming.

Recently, Coca-Cola introduced a new grapefruit-flavored soft drink into the Baltimore-Washington area. Citra, a sort of Fresca with sugar, is aimed at "outgoing and physically active young consumers," as the company's press material puts it.

Carbonated soft drink sales have climbed to around $60 billion a year. And sodas are just part -- although a very large part -- of the category known as nonalcoholic refreshment beverages. Sparkling and nonsparkling fruit drinks, bottled water, sports drinks and ready-to-drink teas and coffees are all selling like gangbusters. The only loser seems to be tap water.

"We as Americans love cold, packaged, sweet drinks," says Tom Pirko of Bevmark, an industry consultant.

Coke isn't the only giant company with multiple products. Here's a profile of Pepsi-Cola's ideal customer, 1998-style:

He (or she) wakes up and reaches for a Frappuccino, a bottled coffee drink that takes the place of a morning cup of coffee.

Midmorning he gets a lift from a can of Lipton Brisk tea.

With lunch she drinks a Pepsi.

A citrusy Storm (now in the test-marketing stage) provides an extra jolt of caffeine to get him through the rest of the afternoon.

After work, a session at the gym ends with a long drink of All Sport to replace those essential salts and electrolytes.

With his elegant little dinner, he drinks Aquafina, a noncarbonated bottled water.

She ends the day with a soothing peach papaya FruitWorks, marketed as a healthy alternative to carbonated sodas.

Every one of these drinks -- several of which fall into the category known as New Age -- is produced by Pepsi. "We have a commitment to be a whole beverage company," says spokesman Larry Jabbonsky.

It's a far cry from the good old days when mothers told their kids to drink their milk, and sodas were for special occasions. Sometime during the '60s, says Pirko, that changed -- like so many other things. "Kids had more independence. They had money in their pockets. Soft drinks became part of growing up." Sales of sodas reflected that change.

The late '80s and early '90s were another time of change in the refreshment beverage industry. This was when New Age, or alternative, drinks (Snapple, AriZona, Clearly Canadian, Evian and the like) really took off.

Selling an image

Produced by small, independent companies, they sold image as much as thirst quenching -- such intangibles as sophistication, purity, energy and quirkiness. At first the large soft drink companies had little interest in competing. Why bother when soda sales were going through the roof?

It didn't take long, though, for the beverage giants to notice just how lucrative alternative drinks were going to be.

As Polly Howes, spokeswoman for Coke, says: "People drink 64 ounces of fluid every day. We're interested in providing as many of those as possible."

The New Age beverages caught on because they arrived at a time when consumers were becoming more health-conscious, many of them looking for less sugar and more fruit content in their drinks. Their offbeat or chic packaging was another selling point. And like premium-brand ice creams, their very cost made them desirable. While these beverages are expensive compared with conventional sodas, sparkling fruit drinks and bottled waters are one of life's less costly ways to treat yourself.

Of all these alternative refreshment drinks, bottled waters have been the most successful, with double-digit growth in sales each year over the past decade. (Of course, compared with carbonated soft drinks, this isn't a huge amount.) They have lots to offer -- or less, depending on how you look at it. For the health-conscious consumer, bottled water is the ultimate all-natural diet product, with zero calories. And the right brand conveys status as well.

At the same time, sales of conventional diet sodas have slowed. That's at least in part because nowadays, says John Sicher, editor of the trade newsletter Beverage Digest, "Weight-conscious Americans are focused on fat. They realize they can drink a regular soda, which has calories but no fat, enjoy the taste and not gain weight."

One could argue -- and industry analysts do -- that the reason sales of nonalcoholic refreshment beverages have continued to grow explosively in just about every other category but diet soda is at least partly because there is so much variety.

"Consumers are open to new things and crave new things," says Gary Hemphill of Beverage Marketing Corp., an industry consultant. "It's a driving force in the industry."

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