Coca-Cola tests niche market with BlaK

Consuming Interests

April 23, 2006|By DAN THANH DANG | DAN THANH DANG,SUN REPORTER

We've all been there, yawning, tired, brain dead and in desperate need of a quick-hit energy boost.

In times like those, we love our caffeinated beverages. A nice, cold soda perks us right up and goodness knows, we will always love, love, love our coffee.

But mixed together in a "carbonated beverage that fuses Coke effervescence with coffee essence ... to enliven your senses and welcome new possibilities?" Effervescent coffee? Carbonated fusion java? Soda and coffee, all at once in one brew?

Hmmm.

If that interesting combo intrigues you, the Atlanta-based bottling giant Coca-Cola Co. has introduced a brand new concoction called Coca-Cola BlaK, which made its debut in supermarkets this month. Coke BlaK, says spokesman Scott Williamson, is designed for adult consumers looking for "an indulgent and revitalizing alternative.

"We think it will appeal to folks who are looking for a pick-me-up at any point in the day, particularly adults in their 20s and 30s," Williamson says. "It is a bit of a complex flavor, one that will appeal to a more mature palate."

Given that alternative energy drinks are the latest consumer craze while U.S. soda sales declined in 2005, for the first time in the past two decades, Coca-Cola's foray into the energy drink extravaganza is not surprising.

The market for alternative energy drinks, according to ACNielsen data, jumped to $1.79 billion in the year that ended April 2005, from $1.15 billion the year before. That's a 56 percent leap.

The leader of that market is Red Bull, according to ACNielsen, which enjoys cachet among the desirable demographic of Generation Y consumers who often use it as a mixer with alcohol.

Coca-Cola has introduced its own line of energy drinks over the years, including one last year called Full Throttle. Other popular drinks, just to name a few, include Monster Energy from Monster Beverage Co., AMP Energy from Pepsi Co., Vamp NRG from Transylvania Imports, Tiger Shot from Tiger Shot USA, which warns imbibers that those "faint of heart," and "afraid to live ... need not sample nor pretend to understand our philosophy of life!"

That's part of the appeal, brand experts say, that these aren't mere beverages, they're lifestyles. Just the sound of those drink names seem to bring forth images of ubercool hipsters snow-boarding and dance clubbing their way through life with no time to slow down.

Hip to those style mavens, Coke BlaK comes in an eye-catching sleek, small, black and tan bottle, the first resealable glass bottle the company has ever introduced in the United States. Those watching their figures will be happy to find that an 8-ounce Coke BlaK has just 45 calories for its 46 milligrams of caffeine. By comparison, the same amount of Coca-Cola Classic has 23 milligrams of caffeine and brewed coffee typically has 60 to 120 milligrams.

Not that Coca-Cola is calling Coke BlaK an energy drink. Williamson says Coke BlaK doesn't fit neatly into any specific or traditional beverage category. But in reality, Jolt Cola and Pepsi introduced their own soda and coffee combos years ago, neither of which appear to be around anymore.

So why introduce a drink that's already fizzled for others?

All theories point back to the numbers. Energy drinks are crazy-popular. Soda sales are down so bottlers have to do something. And after water, coffee is the world's most popular beverage with more than 400 billion cups consumed annually, according to Beverage Digest.

Los Angeles brand expert Rob Frankel had not yet sampled Coke BlaK when we called for his prediction on its success, but seemed unimpressed.

"That doesn't even sound good," Frankel says. "I have to say, Coke has never been an innovative company. Usually, if they think it's a good product, they'll buy [the company] and tank them or buy them and stock them."

At our supermarket, Coke BlaK was displayed nicely by the front doors. We picked up four 8-ounce bottles, for a sticker-shocking $6.29, but with a coupon and grocery club card (we're no dummies!), we got $2 knocked off the price.

Back at the office, the bottles caught almost everyone's eye. But to our great disappointment, when we opened them, the interest did not last.

The sticky sweetness of cotton candy filled our nostrils, reminding us of that queasy feeling we used to get from riding the Tilt-a-Whirl one too many times and then getting an overpowering whiff of carnival food. It tasted not much better, unfortunately.

After the initial sip and then another, we immediately deemed it, Coke Blech.

BevNET.com, a Web site that reviews non-alcoholic, ready-to-drink beverages, said of Coke Blak, "The taste of the product is enjoyably sweet and creamy, but the aftertaste is somewhat brutal, with bitter flavors of coffee and aspartame left behind."

While it's too early to tell - and Coca-Cola won't release any figures - Williamson assures us that the company is pleased so far with Coke BlaK.

"While it may not appeal to everyone, it certainly is doing well since its launch," says Williamson, who considers himself a fan. "It's still very early, but the anecdotal evidence is very promising. It is clearly a niche beverage. We do not anticipate that it will have the broad appeal of a soft drink, but we do think it will be successful."

dan.thanh.dang@baltsun.com

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